Tag Archives: enabling

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

Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living – Wrap-Up

Living in a socially responsible manner inevitably requires a person to bear certain burdens. Fortunately, there are many who are willing to do so. And some of the more ardently conscientious, “neurotic” individuals among us are perhaps all-too-willing to bear these burdens (thus often “enabling” character-impaired individuals to shirk their responsibilities). When fairly conscientious folks find themselves in relationships with disturbed or disordered characters, they generally end up carrying a disproportionate share of burdens. At times, it can seem like the weight of the whole world is on their shoulders. The vignette that follows (as always, details have been altered to preserve anonymity) illustrates such a scenario, which, based on the thousands of stories I’ve heard over the years, is, unfortunately, an all-too-frequent occurrence, and concludes the current series on bearing social burdens (see also the articles: Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living and Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living – Part 2). 

The fact that Mary was as accomplished a person at all she did would astound almost anyone. She’d worked her way up to management-level position in a major international corporation, somehow still found the time to be “super mom” to her 4 children (operating the after-school “shuttle service,” for their various activities, serving as tutor, coach, and mentor, paying the bills, managing the household), and was the consummate, dutiful and devoted wife. She knew that Steve worked hard, too, in his own way. He was quite the entrepreneur, operating as many as 3 businesses simultaneously at one point in time. But she was getting a bit weary of all the schemes that had never quite paid off and all the promises that had never come to fruition. And lately she’d come to feel like she was both bankrolling and underwriting a lifestyle that Steve always wanted but never really earned strictly on his own. Now she didn’t really begrudge him the time he spent on the golf course, because, after all, it appeared his primary – perhaps his only – form of recreation. But she was getting increasingly weary of carrying so much of the load and she really needed him to pitch in more. And it bothered her even more that not only did he not seem to feel inclined to do more on his own but he also seemed to be complaining more and more that she wasn’t being “supportive” enough. Here she was, emptying herself out completely each and every day and he was the one somehow feeling the right to be dissatisfied. So she knew she needed to confront him.

At first things looked promising as Steve promised to go to counseling with her. But he quickly found fault with the therapist who, according to Steve, only seem to want to blame him and tear him down, so he stopped going. Soon after that, and without warning, Mary’s whole world seemed to fall apart. Her company laid off several mid-level managers, and although she had escaped the first round of cuts, she eventually found herself without a job and its substantial income. But perhaps even more of a blow to the gut was Steve’s announcement that he’d been thinking for a while that he needed time and space to “sort through some issues” – to find himself as it were. And within weeks he’d be wanting a formal separation, having already secured an apartment in town that fairly soon afterward she would learn he would be sharing with someone he’d met some time ago through one of his business ventures. She would also learn that their joint bank accounts no longer had the balances she had every reason to believe they had. It seems Steve’s enterprises had been experiencing a “cash flow problem” for quite awhile and he needed the money to sustain himself. So now she had no one to lean on or depend on but herself, and at the moment she had no job, little money in the bank, a stack of unpaid bills, 4 children who still very much needed their mom, and very little hope for the future. How could her life have unraveled so quickly? And how could all Steve’s shenanigans have happened right under her nose?

Actually, the warning signs were there early on. Mary entered her marriage with every intention of being a full partner to Steve and doing her part to build a life together. And as their family grew, every decision she made was made with both Steve’s and her family’s welfare in the forefront of her mind. But right from the start, it wasn’t quite that way with Steve. Somehow, it was always about him. All his energy was directed toward he enjoyed or what he thought would get him the things he desired. True, he could sometimes work very hard. But his efforts were always in the service of his own interest. And whenever things got rough or when it was pretty clear that Mary or the kids really needed him to step up to the plate, he either had no time or energy to give them or was all-too-ready to bail out. Now, it had happened again, and big time! He’d literally taken the money and run and seemingly without a concern in the world or a moment’s hesitation, leaving behind not only his dutiful wife of 20 plus years but also his own four children – all, for the purported purpose of “finding himself” (The truth would out much later that Steve quickly lost interest in his marriage when Mary no longer had the means to support a lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.  And the money he drained from their accounts would help him maintain positive impressions while he plotted the exploitation of his next victim).

Mary had to learn the hard way something both I and Stanton Samenow have written about many times with respect to persons of impaired character: They seem to have a real aversion to a particular kind of labor. They find expending energy on anyone else’s behalf quite unpalatable. That kind of w-o-r-k is truly a “four-letter word” to them (For more on this see the articles: Character and Attitudes toward Work and When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word). As Samenow asserts, they have a big problem with accepting “obligation.”  They hate to feel like they owe anything to anyone other than themselves and are unwilling to engage in those “labors of love” so necessary to make things work and that persons of decent character more willingly and freely embrace. The more narcissistic characters are so self-absorbed and feel so “above” the need, they simply don’t concern themselves with the needs of others. And the more antisocial characters find the whole notion of heeding their social responsibilities too much like submitting themselves to a higher power or authority, a notion I assert in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome is inherently abhorrent to them. To care enough about the welfare of others to want to work on their behalf requires empathy and is the essence of genuine love. Disturbed characters of the ilk I described above, lack the capacity to love in this way because they lack empathy, and the warning signs of such empathy deficits are always in the attitudes they display toward accepting obligation.

This Sunday night’s Character Matters program at 7 pm Eastern Daylight Time (6 PM CDT and 4 PM PDT) will again be a live show, so I can take your phone calls.

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

Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living – Part 2

Becoming a well-socialized, conscientious, responsible human being is process – a long, delicate, sophisticated, and arduous process (for more on this topic see: Socialization is a Process). Some individuals possess innate traits and have learning experiences that together more easily prepare them to lead a responsible life.  But other individuals possess traits that make the socialization process inherently more challenging than usual.  And, if on top of that such folks just happen to come from environments replete with various types of abuse, neglect, or inadequate guidance, they can enter adulthood with little motivation to bear the burden of responsible living.  Today’s article is the second in a series (see also: Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living) designed to illustrate how differently certain personality types approach the burden of responsibility and the problems this can pose for both for relationships and society at large (Note: As always, names and circumstances depicted in the vignette below have been altered to ensure anonymity).

Jerry and Lisa had been married only a few years but it had already become clear their relationship was in trouble, so at Lisa’s insistence, they came in for therapy.  Neither was shy about voicing their complaints.  Jerry had had his fill of Lisa’s “constant bitching and nagging.” She didn’t used to be that way, he complained, and he could hardly believe how she had changed. He only knew he didn’t like it and wished things could be like they used to be.  For her part, Lisa couldn’t fathom how anyone could be as “selfish” and “uncaring” as Jerry had seemed to become.  She always knew he had those tendencies, but she also saw something more in him – at least, at first – and she had high hopes early on that once he’d “settled down” to married life everything would be fine.  But things had gotten so contentious lately that both were at a point of thinking they’d made a very big mistake ever getting together.

Lisa and Jerry had come from very different backgrounds.  While she was still in junior high school, Lisa lost her mother to cancer. It was rough on the whole family.  After her mother died, her father began drinking too much and his business almost went under. For awhile, it seemed to Lisa like the whole family – perhaps even her whole world  – might fall apart.  But she was determined not to let that happen and she took her role as the elder sibling seriously, making sure her brothers and sisters got dressed and ready for school and making sure breakfast was on the table for everyone, including her dad.  She also did her best to support her dad emotionally while he recovered from his loss.  And when he stopped drinking, reinvested himself in his family, and attended to his business affairs more faithfully, he seemed to more than deserve the “super dad” title she affectionately conferred on him.  She promised herself she’d marry someone just like him someday.

Jerry came from a background of privilege.  Both of his parents came from well-to-do families and he never wanted for anything growing up.  He’d be the first to admit he didn’t invest himself as much as he could have in his studies but being quite gifted intellectually, he managed to pass all his classes, and because his parents were both benefactors and had connections there, he was able to get into and graduate (albeit “barely”) from a reputable private college.  Tragically, he lost his younger brother to a drug overdose right after graduation, and for awhile he “kind of dropped out” of life until, that is, he met Lisa.

Lisa became pregnant within the first year of their marriage but miscarried toward the end of her second month.  As difficult as the experience was for her emotionally, she regarded the event as fortunate in a way because it was because of Jerry’s response to the prospect of fatherhood and his seeming lack of concern about losing another job that she began taking better notice of his general attitude toward his responsibilities.  How could someone be so unconcerned about not working when they knew there would soon be another mouth to feed?  And what kind of husband could be so comfortable letting his wife carry the whole load by herself, pregnant and all?  She had been there for him.  But would he be there for her?

Now, I’ve seen hundreds of situations just like Lisa and Jerry’s where one party gives short-shrift to social expectations and the other party is all-too-willing to pick up the slack.  And I’ve seen too many instances where someone makes the same mistake Lisa made when she first became involved with Jerry:  Based on her experience with her father, who lost his wife, sank into a fair degree of depression which he self-medicated for awhile with alcohol, but then with support, became “super dad,” she just knew Jerry was a wounded soul (after all he’d also suffered a loss) and even though she had reservations about his sense of obligation, she felt that with the right kind of support, all would be well.  It’s natural for us to want to generalize from our experience.  But the fact is that everyone is different.  Moreover, environment alone doesn’t shape a person’s character.  A person brings their own innate inclinations to the table, too.  And most importantly, just how much a person allows him/herself to profit from their experiences both good and bad counts for a lot, and that has much more to do with their ability to get past themselves and both see and care about the bigger picture (for  more on personality formation and disorders of personality and character, see the relevant chapters in Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome and the series beginning with: Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer, and culminating with Personality and Character Disorders – Part 7: A Wrap-Up).  Jerry lacked a sense of obligation to anything or anyone bigger than himself long before he experienced any significant trauma in his life.  And he unfortunately came from the consummate family of “enablers” who only reinforced his lack of investment.  On the other hand, Lisa, who had every reason to abandon care and hope because of the trauma she experienced, seemed have the internal resources to accept the daunting challenges life presented her and more than rise to the occasion.  Hers was a remarkably conscientious character.  Unfortunately, she was conscientious to the point (and naive enough) that she enabled an individual already prone to being irresponsible shirk his duties even more once he married.

Fortunately, the extent of Jerry’s character disturbance was not so severe that his relationship with Lisa couldn’t survive.  But Lisa had to become much less willing to do everything and more willing to hold Jerry accountable.  And she had to do much less complaining (her way of simultaneously venting and cajoling) and simply set and stand by reasonable limits and expectations.  Jerry, for his part, would have to find some cause to release his passions.  At first, his sole motivation would be his fear of losing someone he knew to be a good and decent person, but later it would necessarily be acquiring some sense of a “higher purpose” in life and cultivating the willingness to serve that higher cause.

While this particular story had a happy resolve, there are unfortunately all-too-many examples I could give of folks who approached the burden of responsible living with utter disregard or even contempt, and next week’s post will feature a vivid example of this.

Character Matters this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern Time will again be a live program, so I’ll again be able to take your telephone calls.


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

Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living

Life is inherently hard, and leading a conscientious, responsible life is harder still.  But some folks seem to have both the internal resources and the willingness to assume the burden of responsible living, whereas other folks either uncaringly allow the burden to be borne by others else or actively shirk the burdens they’re asked to bear.  And therein lies the dilemma many decent folks have faced in their relationships with disturbed or disordered characters.

Many have wondered why some folks seem to accept the burdens associated with responsible living so readily, whereas others do so only begrudgingly, and still others refuse the burden altogether.  What makes the difference?  What makes some folks so willing to shoulder responsibility and others so adverse to the notion?  Such are the questions the current series of articles will address.

I’ve written before about some of the reasons disturbed characters have such a hard time accepting the responsibilities of life.  For one thing, they tend to be inveterate comfort and pleasure-seekers (for more on the disturbed character’s penchants for “hedonistic  thinking” and pleasurable sensation-seeking see the articles: Hedonistic Thinking and The Will to Bear Discomfort: A Key Character Trait), adverse to bearing any kind of burden that’s not purely and immediately self-serving.  Learning to be responsible is largely a matter of accepting burdens for the greater good, and folks lacking in empathy rarely have the motivation to bear such burdens.  The willingness to do so can only arise out of love, which is why a person’s incapacity to genuinely love is always reflected in their shirking of responsibility.  Still, it’s surprising how many people enter relationships fully aware of their prospective partner’s irresponsible behavior tendencies yet delude themselves about that person’s capacity to love.

All three of my books, Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome, devote substantial attention to the socialization process (i.e. the essential tasks of character development that must be mastered for a person to lead a responsible life).  And in Character Disturbance, I sum up my philosophy of how a person becomes responsible this way:

Even though a person might begin life as a prisoner of both the natural endowments he was given and the circumstances under which he was raised, he cannot remain a “victim” of his environment forever. Eventually, every person must come to terms with him or herself.  To know oneself, to fairly judge one’s strengths and weaknesses, and to attain true mastery over one’s basic instincts and inclinations are among life’s greatest challenges. But ultimately, anyone’s rise to a life of integrity and merit can only come as the result of a full self-awakening.  A person must come to know himself as well as others without deceit or denial.  He must honestly face and reckon with all aspects of his character.  Only then can he freely take on the burden of disciplining himself not only for the sake of himself but also for the sake of others.  It is the free choice to take up this burden or “cross” that defines love. And it is the willingness of a person to carry this cross even to death that opens the door to a higher plane of existence.

In the articles to follow, I’ll be presenting some vignettes that illustrate not only how various disturbances of character impair a person’s willingness to accept the burdens of responsible living but also how certain aspects of modern culture as well as the often well-intended actions of the overly conscientious (i.e. “neurotic”) among us “enable,” promote, and even reward character dysfunction.  I’ll also be discussing these same topics on Character Matters over the next few weeks, so feel free to join the discussion by calling in!





Sexual Irresponsibility: Illness, Addiction, or Character?

I’ve counseled hundreds of couples whose marriages and other partnerships were marked by sexual infidelity and other trust betrayals. Sometimes, problems revolved around other kinds of sexual irresponsibility (e.g., “sexting,” flirting, email enticements, internet pornography, partner sexual objectification, etc.) as well. And many times, before these individuals made contact with me, they had tried to seek help for these problems in various popular treatment venues. Often this involved the unfaithful or irresponsible partner getting into some sort of “sexual addiction” treatment and the aggrieved party participating in a support group while their bad-actor partner struggled to “overcome their denial,” then “heal,” and “recover”.  

Now I’m not one of those professionals who insists that addictions are not real. And, I’ve even witnessed some instances of genuine sexual addiction. But such cases are extremely rare. Being willfully sexually irresponsible and wantonly disregarding the requirements for nurturing a meaningful, intimate relationship is not the same as suffering from an addiction. And unfortunately, our society has increasingly accepted the notion of “illness” as an excuse for a person’s perfectly voluntary misbehavior and abdication of responsibility.  What’s worse, many professionals and treatment models endorse such a perspective.  In so doing, they have become some of the more serious “enablers” of character dysfunction, a fact that negatively impacts us all.

Every now and then, we come across an egregious example of someone carrying our culture’s tendency to see everyone as a victim to an absurd extreme, and the fact that this happens at all should give us great pause.  I’ve written before about the notorious (and now deceased) child rapist Ariel Castro who satisfied his lust for teenage girls by carefully stalking and then abducting three young women, holding them hostage for years, and regularly sexually assaulting them.  Castro declared himself no “monster” or predator, but rather a “sick” victim of a severe pornography “addiction” (See also: “I Am Not A Monster”: Impression Management Ariel Castro Style, and Mental Disorders and Accountability:  Is Everyone a Victim?).  This man then had the gall to assert that he should be pitied instead of reviled and afforded treatment as opposed to being punished for his heinous crimes. I’ve also written about three drug-dealing teenage hoodlums caught on their school bus surveillance camera beating a classmate within an inch of his life to “teach [him] a lesson” about “snitching”  to school authorities, while attorneys and mental health experts alike argued that the perpetrators were merely “troubled,” had “anger management issues,” and deserved therapy as opposed to strict legal consequences and reformative intervention (See: Anger Management for Bus Beaters:  Justice Misguided?).  Every day there’s a similar story.  From the congressman caught systematically funneling off hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use while claiming Bipolar Disorder made him do it, to the congressman turned mayoral candidate who claimed that his ongoing lewd behavior and sexual solicitations (even after having “successfully completed” treatment!) was the result of his sexual addiction, to the spoiled rich kid who drank and drove illegally, killed his friends in the process, bragged his well-heeled parents would get him off, and whose attorneys (and, I might add, a psychologist as well) asserted he suffered from the disease of “affluenza” (being the “victim” of never having learned accountability because wealth and power always spared him consequence), claims that mental disorders of some sort are really to blame for a person’s willful misbehavior have become so commonplace that not only have most folks lost their outrage about such claims but they have also increasingly afforded such claims a fair degree of plausibility and even legitimacy (See:  “Affluenza”:  Is Spoiled Rotten The New Accountability Excuse?). This begs the question of whether the concepts of personal responsibility and accountability even exist anymore. Is everyone in fact a victim in one way or another? Is all our behavior merely a product of our biochemistry, our upbringing, our environment, etc.? Do we have any real control over our actions as some of our parents wanted us to believe? Are the concepts of right and wrong, personal responsibility and consequences for behavior simply outdated?

This coming Sunday night on Character Matters, my guest will be Tracy Schorn, AKA: “Chump Lady.”  She has a way of practically applying the principles I’ve long advocated in my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome) to matters of relationship irresponsibility and, especially sexual infidelity.  Being a faithful, committed participant in a life partnership has never been an easy task.  It takes integrity of character to resist the many temptations one faces on a daily basis, to honor one’s vows, to commit yourself fully to one person, and to love that person genuinely and deeply. And Tracy has a particularly articulate way of spelling out what it looks like when a person with at least some decency of character and has done damage to their relationship takes responsibility for their misconduct and commits to not only repairing that damage they did but also to developing the kind of integrity that might guard against them doing more damage in the future. Tracy’s been “chumped” before – played for a fool.  But she learned some hard lessons and is committed to being a chump no more.  I expect we’ll have a good discussion about why so many relationships these days are as troubled as they are and why the traditional, dominant models for providing “help” have proven so ineffective. 

The good news is that the pendulum is definitely beginning to swing in the opposite direction and the tide is truly turning when it comes to people’s attitudes toward responsibility and character. Character is and has always been the key to responsible social functioning, and many others are beginning to share this opinion. That’s good, because we have it within our power to stem the tide of rampant abdication of personal responsibility. A good beginning would be to put an end to the endless “enabling” we’ve been doing by refusing to accept the all-too-frequently invoked “disorder (or addiction) excuse” and holding all people, except for those very rare few who are truly so mentally ill that their voluntary capacity is compromised, accountable for their misbehavior. “Therapy” was never meant to be a substitute for a well-earned consequence.  It’s time to quit shuffling habitual responsibility-shirkers into ineffective “treatment” and instead hold them to account.  Folks who, like Tracy, have been “chumped” in their relationships, have unfortunately learned this lesson the hard way.

Affluenza: Is “Spoiled Rotten” The New Accountability Excuse?

Outrage was fairly widespread when a judge apparently agreed with a defense attorney’s argument that a 16 year-old who stole beer from a Wal-Mart store, washed some Valium tablets down with it, then proceeded to drive drunk and recklessly, killing 4 people (and leaving 2 others paralyzed) in the process, actually suffered from a psychological “disorder” (labeled by some psychobabbling mental health professionals as “affluenza”) and should therefore be afforded the opportunity to be rehabilitated and hopefully grow a conscience in treatment instead of being otherwise punished for his crimes.   The judge’s decision in the Ethan Couch case left many wondering whether being “spoiled rotten” will become the new defense for delinquent juveniles hoping to evade accountability for their actions.

Ethan Couch has lived the life of privilege for most of his young years, and he’s been breaking some major rules and getting into trouble since his early teens.  He’s also been getting away with it, developing a huge sense of entitlement in the process. Juvenile delinquency is nothing new, of course.  But the Couch case is is particularly troubling because many see it as evidence of a serious double standard within the justice system when it comes to wealthy vs. poor individuals. Critics point out that every day in our country, troubled teens from underprivileged backgrounds are tried as adults and slapped with lengthy prison terms for similar (or even lesser) kinds of conduct. Such criticism indeed has great merit.  But another, less talked about yet highly important issue is whether the imposed “consequence” (Couch was sentenced to 10 years probation including a 2-year stint in a treatment program) even begins to adequately serve the purpose of possibly reforming this young man’s attitudes and behavior. Spending two years in a posh mountainside retreat-style “rehab” center (the almost half million dollar cost for which the teen’s parents must pay) is most probably not going to accomplish that. The treatment model at such facilities is simply not sufficiently specialized to adequately address this teen’s significant character impairments.  And despite the fact that the particular center chosen for Ethan’s rehab will cost his voraciously “enabling” parents a lot of money, the “consequence” they’re experiencing is also inadequate.  Any way you look at it, this case seems like a travesty of justice.

Because of how we punish in America (for more information on punishment, popular misconceptions about it, and how it can indeed be effective when implemented properly, see my articles on the subject as well pages 249-251 in my book Character Disturbance), the prison sentences we impose on serious lawbreakers serve less to send a deterring “message” to them and other would-be offenders and more to temporarily reduce the opportunity they have to freely victimize the general public by keeping them sequestered.  Still, anyone would have to wonder what kind of message Couch’s sentence sends to to him, to his and other parents, and to all the other would-be delinquents out there, privileged or not.  Right now, the message seems to be that you can repeatedly violate the law (Ethan’s had multiple run-ins with the law and multiple episodes of drunkenness, had been driving since age 13 and was, astonishingly enough, just in court 3 months prior to this tragic event) and in your recklessness take the lives of 4 people (and seriously paralyze two others), if you just happen to be the “victim” of your parents’ failure to teach you any better.  Moreover, the only prices you or your family will have to pay is a warning about what might happen if you don’t seriously consider changing your ways and the cost of treatment for your “illness.”  What a message to send!  And given Ethan’s history, and the little heed he’s paid to the various “messages” and warnings (including formal warnings from the court) he’s been sent in the past, it’s quite likely this latest message has also fallen on deaf ears.

I’m old enough to remember when parents were not only held fully accountable for the actions of minors under their care but also took this responsibility very seriously.  As a result, they made sure not only to teach their children right from wrong, but to hold them accountable for their actions, lest the entire family pay a steep price both financially and with respect to public standing and personal honor. Today, everyone is a “victim” of some sort.  Even a youngster who steals, repeatedly illegally drinks, engages in many reckless and illegal acts, and does so with full knowledge of the risks, is somehow the “victim” of the parents who spoiled him rotten and taught him that there’s always a way to buy yourself out of trouble.  I’m also old enough to remember when justice was meted out with a certain degree of “blindness” and dispassion.  You broke the law, and you paid the price. It was that simple.   Nothing is that simple anymore.

It’s never been good public policy to adjudicate by sentiment as opposed to reason, but I think it’s self-evident that sentiment played far too big a role in the sentence Couch received (and I’m not merely talking about the probation vs. hard sentence or prison vs. rehabilitation issues here because there were lots of options available to the judge for imposing consequences that might have actually fairly punished the youngster as well as truly facilitated his rehabilitation).  For if the judge were really so concerned that this youngster’s problems directly stemmed from him never having learned to “link bad behavior with significant consequences,” the sentence she imposed does little to “correct” that irresponsibility-fostering perception.  To me, that’s the proof that sentiment – not reason – played the greater role in the judge’s decision.  And it’s the absence of sound reasoning that’s one major reason for the hard to understand decision in this case.

Another serious, and perhaps even more insidious factor at play in the Couch case is the all-too-common misunderstanding about how various psychological “disorders” bear upon a person’s culpability.  There are only a few “disorders” that truly impair a person’s ability to know right from wrong or to exercise voluntary control over their conduct (for more on this see some of my other articles, such as: Mental Disorders and Accountability: Is Everyone a Victim?).  Still, defense attorneys often use (and judges, unfortunately, accept) the “mental disorder excuse,” casting their clients as victims of conditions that predispose them to act in bad ways and successfully argue for treatment in lieu of punishment.  And given the horrendous overcrowding that exists in our jails and prisons, such sentences, though contraindicated much of the time, are often eagerly embraced.

If ever there were a prime example of how socio-cultural factors influence the prevalence and degree of character disturbance in our young people, the case of Ethan Couch, (prominently featuring his “enabling” parents, the power of wealth and privilege, and the folly of a confused, misguided, and truly dysfunctional justice system), is it!  About the only good news coming out of this news story was the willingness of a few psychologists and other mental health professionals to finally step up and speak out about character issues and the absurdity and harmfulness of casting character problems as “illnesses,” including completely made-up illnesses like “affluenza.”  Too bad so many of spokespersons I saw on TV and heard on radio still seemed somewhat wishy-washy in their stance and generally under-informed about character pathology.  Still, it seems that a small change might be taking place in the “zeitgeist” (i.e. attitudinal “atmosphere” or milieu) of both our culture and the professional community.  So perhaps some good will eventually come of what appears now to be a truly tragic miscarriage of justice.

Baldwin and Ford: Poster Children for Character Disturbance

As those familiar with my work already know, I believe character dysfunction, fed by a culture of permissiveness and narcissism, is the phenomenon of our age.  And for those who accept this premise, it should come as no surprise when yet another high-profile figure make headlines because of their entitled, self-indulgent, or otherwise outrageous behavior.  Recently, however, the antics of the actor Alec Baldwin and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have illustrated the cardinal features of character dysfunction with such clarity that I think it fair to dub them the new poster children for character disturbance.

When it comes to the very public travails of the popular actor Alec Baldwin, there have always appeared only two reasonable possibilities: either he’s one of the most unlucky individuals in the world who, through no fault of his own, and like a magnet, simply attracts all sorts of trouble or he’s got some big time “issues” with which, at least to date, he hasn’t appeared to have adequately dealt. Over the past several weeks, as some of his antics have made news yet again, the evidence has mounted even further for the latter possibility. Baldwin’s difficulties go back a long way. Perhaps the most well-known example of his volatility surfaced several years ago in the aftermath of a contentious divorce from his first wife, actress Kim Basinger and an ensuing custody battle.  Basinger claimed Baldwin as a person was nothing like the image he actively promoted. She cast him as not only explosive and abusive during their marriage but also as a someone who refused to accept or work on his character flaws. And she cited those reasons for seeking to protect both herself and their young daughter by limiting contact with him. Baldwin in turn complained that he was the classic “victim” of “parental alienation syndrome” and that Basinger herself was the evil creature, not only vindictively denying a loving, caring father an opportunity to participate in the raising of his child, but also senselessly trying to “destroy” him. Interestingly, during the ordeal, Baldwin enjoyed much support among his peers in the entertainment industry whereas Basinger was seen by many as the unreasonable, over-dramatizing, and perhaps unstable ex-partner. That changed, but only to a small degree, when a phone message Baldwin left for his then 11-year old daughter somehow fell into the hands of the website TMZ and the world got it’s first glimpse into the kind of vitriol Baldwin is capable of spewing. In a profanity-laced tirade, Baldwin called his daughter, among other things, a rude and thoughtless “pig,” and verbally trashed her mother’s character. He unashamedly acknowledged his awareness of her young and vulnerable age, but also unhesitatingly insisted he “didn’t care” about that because he was in fact the greater victim, having been “insulted” by her (for failing to have her phone turned on at the time of his call to her and being routed instead to voicemail) once again and for what he also emphatically declared would be “the last time.” He also told his daughter she not only deserved the tongue-lashing he gave her but also the “*ss-straightening” he planned to give her during his next in-person visit. When an attorney for Basinger was asked whether the message reflected the kind of emotional volatility and abuse about which Basinger had always complained, the response was: “The tape speaks for itself” (as well it does and you can hear for yourself : http://www.aolcdn.com/tmz_audio/0419_baldwin_bleeped.mp3).

Baldwin’s temper has since become legend. A couple of years ago, he became belligerent with a flight attendant after being instructed to turn off and put away a cell phone on which he was playing a game. Things got so contentious he had to be escorted off the plane. He later publicly apologized to the passengers who had their travel delayed but refused to apologize to the airlines or crew, insisting it was they who mishandled the situation and blew things entirely out of proportion.

Then there’s the embattled mayor of Toronto, Ontario in Canada.  For months he demanded that police produce a tape they claimed showed him smoking crack cocaine or stop defaming him.  Then, when confronted with the evidence, he admitted he’d been parsing his words ever so carefully to conceal his guilt.  But problems only escalated when the Toronto city council took steps to sanction the mayor by first asking him to consider stepping down and then acting to severely abridge his powers.  That’s when all the pushing, shoving, profanity-laced tirades, etc. became an everyday affair.  After each explosion, Ford would proclaim he was provoked to the point that anyone would lose control.  Yet, he would also apologize, swear it wouldn’t happen again, and while pointing an accusing finger at those who expressed doubts about his willingness to “own” his issues, dared to assert:  “I’ve already apologized, there’s really nothing else I can do!”  Of course, he knows there’s something else he could (even though he doesn’t want to) do:  he could change. Ford’s also made it clear that no matter what his city council members do, he will neither step down or have dictated to him the terms of any “rehabilitation” effort.  He’s been elected.  That makes him in charge.  And, according to him, he’s staying in charge.  In fact, he’s informed the city council members that their attempts to censure him justify “all out war.”

I suppose cases could be made that both Ford and Baldwin suffer from conditions like substance abuse, or simply need anger management classes.  But the heart of their dysfunction lies in their character.  The signs are everywhere:  attitudes of entitlement, superficial charm, distorted thinking, frequent use of tactics to avoid responsibility, the readiness to blame others, constant efforts to manage the impressions of others, etc.  It’s not so much that these guys are otherwise healthy personalities with some “issues” to work on but rather that who they are in character that causes them function in such a socially irresponsible way.  Even more troubling than that is the fact that they’re completely comfortable with the kind of persons they are (in my books and other writings this is called the “ego-syntonic”  nature of the disturbed characters symptoms) despite all the problems their character deficiencies have caused.

As I’ve written about before, dysfunctional personalities get to be the way they are in part because their innate predispositions (which they never strove to discipline in the interest of the greater good) and in part because in the absence of sufficient social sanction, they are “enabled” to keep doing things the way they always have.  Despite his long history of problems, Baldwin has consistently enjoyed an uncommon degree of support, especially in the entertainment community, that is, until just recently after another explosive rant. It happened during the trial of a woman Baldwin had accused of “stalking” him. The woman claimed he had an affair with her, lied about it, and cold-heartedly cut her out of his life when he decided to pursue another woman, causing her to become emotionally and behaviorally unstable (which, to her detriment, she clearly displayed in several antics of her own during the trial). Baldwin claimed he’d never been intimate with the woman, who he insisted was actually someone else’s lover, and who had driven him to the edge of sanity (Baldwin appeared to break down in tears on the witness stand) with her persistent attempts to intrude upon his privacy. The woman was convicted, and after the trial, when a member of the paparazzi approached him, Baldwin hurled an anti-gay epithet while berating the man. Characteristically, Baldwin later denied having the anti-gay feelings his epithet suggested he might harbor in his heart and promised the reprehensible word he uttered would be “permanently retired” from his vocabulary. But he also justified his actions, insisting he believed the person he berated was intruding too far into his and his family’s private space. As a result of his actions, and with pressure coming from various activist groups, especially the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the TV cable channel MSNBC temporarily suspended his talk show.   And while Baldwin has tried to claim he doesn’t really harbor anti-gay sentiments and only lost control under pressure, this latest episode comes on the heels of a similar rant he went on not too long ago in which he called another reporter/photographer a “toxic little queen.”  Baldwin also claims to be a champion of women and their rights, and against abuse of all sorts, but he is on record as telling one female reporter that he wanted to choke her to death.  He also claims to be a champion of minorities and to harbor no racist sentiments, yet is also on record of using racially-charged epithets with journalists of color.  So it’s refreshing that at least one human rights group (a GLAAD spokesperson) pointed out that it’s not good enough to repeatedly claim one feels or believes a certain way when one repeatedly acts in a manner that suggests otherwise.  Still, Baldwin has considerable support. Even his now grown daughter, Ireland, (a fashion model pursuing a career in the public eye herself), has come to his defense, asserting she knows her father to be a person who doesn’t really feel the way he acts or speaks when he’s in a rage.   And while Baldwin deserves to be cut no slack for his lack of acceptance of and insufficient work on his problems, I do find it unfortunate that so many in the media, entertainment industry, and even his friends and family members continue to enable him, inadvertently helping to forestall that potentially corrective day of reckoning that could possibly prompt him to change his ways. Perhaps, however, the actions of MSNBC and GLAAD will help reverse that trend.

There was a time when the constant, outrageous behaviors of Ford and Baldwin were viewed within the professional community as an unconsciously-directed “cry for help” from a person who unconsciously knows they’re out of control and wants to be stopped before they do something catastrophic.  But from another point of view, you could say that the behavior persists because the impaired character lacks the soundness and maturity of conscience necessary to self-regulate their behavior in a pro-social manner, is reinforced or enabled in their behavior by a permissive, indulgent culture that promotes feelings of entitlement, and therefore there’s no motivation to change.

As I assert in my book Character Disturbance, character dysfunction exists along a continuum, and the personalities of both Ford and Baldwin lie on this continuum.  And as I assert in In Sheep’s Clothing, some people are not what they appear. While gifted with superficial charm and skilled at impression-management, they have neither the heart nor the solidity of character to actually be as good as they try to convince others they are.  And they will go to special lengths to conceal the fiercely aggressive nature of their true character.   Baldwin has been telling folks for some time now that their opinions about who he really is are wrong. Perhaps it’s time we believe him.  I’ve also asserted that some aggressive personalities make no attempt to hide their nature, they only try to justify it. They not only go through life like bulls in a china shop, but they’re also proud of that fact.  They relish in their tenacity and nurture it constantly, resisting submission at every turn – even submission to the standards of decent social conduct, the rule of law, or, as in Ford’s case, the will of the people.  And it’s that absolute refusal to submit that keeps such folks from forming a normal, healthy conscience, which is why we can expect them to do the same crazy things over and over again, despite adverse consequence.  The last two posts (see:  Conscience Development in the Aggressive Character and Egotists:  Above the Need for a Governing Higher Power) describe what things can look like when individuals with egotistic or aggressive character traits are growing up.  Today’s post is about what they look like when they have grown up but haven’t responsibly dealt with those traits.  And all three of my books contain vignettes and other information that explain not only why these folks are the way they are but also what would really have to happen for them to change.  We can only hope that public dissatisfaction with the antics of Baldwin and Ford (and, hopefully, also, the level of sanction) reaches the point where each will feel some degree of pressure to take a solid look at themselves and for the first time at least “entertain” the possibility of modifying their ways.  Understand,… I’m not placing any bets!

What Made Them This Way?: Understanding Disturbed Characters

By far the most frequent question I’m asked has to do how disturbed characters came to be the way they are.  The following (edited) inquiry I received is typical of those searching for understanding:

I simply don’t understand most of the behaviors I see out of this guy.  He doesn’t seem to have the same sense of how to get along in the world that most of the people I know figured out a long time ago.  And while I’ve seen some strange behaviors in my day, I could never even imagine some of the things I’ve seen him do.  What’s worse, he does them without any compunction whatsoever.

I always find myself asking how a person gets to be this way.  Sometimes I think he must have been abused as a child. Perhaps he can’t love the way most people love because he doesn’t have any familiarity with love.  Maybe no one showed it to him.  I know his parents divorced when he was young.  Perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know.  But it just seems like no matter how hard I try to explain things to him, he just doesn’t get it.  I’ve done my best to understand, but to tell you the  truth, I’m simply worn out from trying.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

What makes a person become this way?  Can they ever change?

The notion that disturbed characters must have experienced abuse, trauma, or neglect as children has been around for a long time. But ample research indicates that although many disturbed characters report traumatic experiences, the veracity of those reports with respect to is often suspect.  There’s also abundant evidence that a person can develop a markedly impaired character even when raised in the most benign, nurturing environment.  Moreover, many individuals who come from difficult backgrounds somehow seem to be able to develop admirable character.   So, there is never a simple answer to this question.   Both an individual’s innate predispositions and their environment contribute to the shaping of their character.  The most important thing to remember, however, is when you strive too hard to “understand” a person’s behavior, you can often inadvertently excuse it.

Most people really ask this question because they are so unnerved by the behavior pattern of the disturbed character in their life. And it’s even more distressing to entertain the notions that some people are simply radically different from what we might perceive as “normal” and are also resistant to changing their style of coping.  As I assert in both my books, In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, “they already see (i.e. know that their behavior is not what others consider appropriate) but simply disagree (i.e. prefer a style of coping that while offensive to others is acceptable to them).”  What’s more, it doesn’t really matter why they act the way they do.  What really matters is that anyone who wants to have an empowered relationship with them must enforce strict boundaries, limits, and expectations with respect to behavior.  And whether a disturbed character can or will change depends upon a number of factors.  But to develop any motivation to change their dysfunctional pattern, it simply has to stop working for them.  As long as others tolerate or try incessantly to be understanding, the disturbed character will keep on doing what they’ve always done.

So remember, don’t try too hard to understand.  Just set reasonable expectations and limits.  And accept the fact that people are different and some folks really have to be held accountable because they spend so little effort of their own to appropriately manage their behavior.  And don’t count on them changing either.  Let time and consistency be your guides.  Remember, they already “get it.”  And if they really mean to change you’ll know it by a consistent, self-directed effort on their part.

Character on Trial: Some Lessons to Learn

I’ve been watching portions of the trial of the physician who was treating Michael Jackson at the time of his untimely death.  And to me, some of the most intriguing aspects of the case are the facts that the trial is occurring at all as well as the hard to understand reactions of some of the spectators who gather each day outside the courthouse.
I’m not making any judgments whatsoever with respect to the legal guilt or innocence of the defendant.  But I feel obliged to comment on what I consider yet another example of one of the main points I make in my book Character Disturbance, namely that a wide variety of the ills plaguing modern, industrialized societies are directly traceable to the character crisis increasingly prevalent within them.  The problem cuts across all walks of life, all social and economic levels, both sexes, and various age groups.  And what really compounds the problem is that because of years of moral relativism and the blanket acceptance of sometimes outdated and critically inaccurate paradigms of understanding human nature, many folks have simply lost their ability to fairly and accurately appraise the character of others.  That’s why so many people enter into relationships only to realize how dysfunctional, abusive, exploiting, or dangerous they are long after substantial damage has already been done.
Dr. Conrad Murray is by no means the only high-profile person to be in the news of late because of alleged unethical, outrageous, or unscrupulous conduct.  When it comes to irresponsible conduct, there’s a wide open field, and vast, ready and willing cast of nefarious characters ready to play.  And because so many scoundrels have come to prominent attention of late, it really perplexes me at times how difficult it still is for some folks to make simple, plain judgments about a person’s character.  I can’t think of a case that’s made headlines in recent months where it wasn’t fairly clear early on that if there were a single shred of decency in the person caught red-handed in their horrendous conduct, they would not put the dwindling and already over-burdened responsible folks among us through the ordeal and expense of a media circus primarily designed to save their skins from sanction.  I have noticed that folks generally appear to be less understanding or forgiving if the scoundrel in question has gotten rich as a result of their misdeeds. In the case of Bernie Madoff, for example, I didn’t see anyone marching outside the courtroom carrying placards and advocating for the notion that the good things he might have done for some was de facto evidence that his character was being unjustly assailed.  But I have seen such things in the current fiasco.  And some people have even given interviews asserting that because the doctor professionally did them some good, he simply can’t be bad.
I know this is a provocative assertion for some, but here’s how I see it:  years of moral relativism, permissiveness, a huge sense of entitlement, and well-intended but inaccurate paradigms of human understanding taught and promoted at many educational levels, have “enabled” the character crisis that has beset us and clouded the average person’s judgment about how to appraise character. And if we fail to recognize the problem and how serious the problem has become, how in the world will we ever see our way clear to remedy it?
Fortunately, there really are some fairly straightforward guidelines by which almost anyone can fairly judge the character of another.   Nobody’s perfect.  But a person with at least a minimum level of decency and does something really wrong, takes responsibility for it, doesn’t try to justify it or blame everyone else, doesn’t make others pay for their mistake, and at the very least, makes a good-faith and from the heart commitment to do better next time.
Society can set all the limits and boundaries it chooses.  But the willingness to respect those boundaries and limits instead of trying to get around them is an a matter of each individual heart.  That’s why character matters so much.  And societies that forget that inevitably fall into decline.  And if some outrageous scoundrels bringing the entire world to the brink of economic collapse is not enough to get the responsible folks among us to realize how important it is to recognize, deal with, and do something about what’s producing so any rascals among us, I’m not sure what will.  So, even though I’ve written about it several times before and even relatively recently (see: Character, and the Ability to Correctly Appraise It, Matters), and even though I’ve written an entire book about it (i.e. Character Disturbance), I’ve posted yet another article calling attention to what I truly believe is the defining “phenomenon of our age.”

Anger Issues or Something More?

Some time ago, I got an urgent plea for help from a woman trying to understand her husband’s “anger issues.”  An edited (to preserve anonymity) summary of her inquiry follows:

My husband is afflicted with episodes of intense anger over stupid, little things.  I don’t understand it.  You never know what might set him off.  He will call me names like “stupid idiot” in front of the children and yell and scream.  He can blow up over anything, like when something is accidentally spilled on the floor, or when I wear something he hasn’t gotten a chance to give his approval to first, or when I take the car without asking.

We’ve been married for almost 16 years, and he has never hit me, so I wouldn’t call him abusive. I came from a loving, quiet family where people never raised their voices.  But two years into our marriage his tirades started.  I think his dad must have been abusive to him before he deserted the family when he was a teenager. I know his problems come stem from this but I still don’t know how to deal with it. I left him a few years back and we stayed apart for 4 months before getting back together. He always brings up the fact that it was me who deserted him.  He also constantly questions whether I have been with someone else.  The other day, I had  a doctor’s appointment and when I returned he asked if anyone made a pass at me.

I don’t want our 12 and 13 year-old sons to grow up and treat their wives my husband treats me.  I’ve told them this is not right behavior.  I’ve also  tried to talk to him about getting help.  I’ve even mentioned possibly leaving again. Whenever I do, he gets a lot better for awhile.  But then things start going badly again.  I know he’s a good person if it weren’t for these anger outbursts.  Sometimes I worry he might have a stroke or an aneurysm.  I also worry he could have some kind of chemical imbalance and I wonder if he should be on some kind of medication.  But when I suggest he see somebody, he tells me he’d be fine if I wouldn’t stress him out like I do. What do you think I should do?

Like many, this woman views her husband as afflicted by a condition that she assumes stems from his experiences in childhood or a variety of other causes.  And she continues to try very hard to “understand” his behavior. But in making assumptions about the root causes of his actions and trying far too hard to understand them, she inadvertently excuses the behavior and “enables” problems to continue and possibly escalate.  She also identifies the emotion of anger as the problem instead of the aggressive behavior he displays. She also trivializes the significance of the emotional and verbal abuse heaped upon her, and casts her husband as a basically good guy because he hasn’t physically assaulted her.  But as I discuss in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, this man shows many key signs of severe character dysfunction, including thinking patterns, attitudes, and tactics (e.g., entitlement, possession and ownership, intimidation, blaming, etc.) that predispose him to unhealthy dominance-seeking in his relationships and to aggressive conduct, much of which is not even rooted in anger.  My response to this woman’s inquiry included the following:

Whether your husband has problems with anger management, impulse and aggression control, or an underdeveloped character, the most important thing for you to accept is that they are his problems to address through appropriate guidance and dedicated self-correction.   Your responsibility is to take care of yourself, which means setting firm limits and expectations, and refusing to subject yourself to anything less than loving, respectful treatment by others.  Your husband’s capacity to modify his behavior has been demonstrated during the times you left him, and briefly during those times when you’ve urged him to seek help or raised the possibility of leaving again.  But it’s also apparent he lost any motivation to clean up his act once you resumed your former tolerance. Insist that he take responsibility for himself and his actions, secure whatever guidance he might require, abide by any treatment recommendations he is given, and stop blaming anyone else.  It’s not uncommon for a well-trained therapist to advise that all the family members seek help of some sort.  You might want to explore for yourself how you came to be so unreasonably tolerant of abusive and controlling behavior and why you put more energy into trying to “understand” as opposed to enforcing limits and boundaries.

This kind of situation might be familiar to some of the readers.  Hopefully, some of key points highlighted in this example will prove helpful to those in similar circumstances.

Conscience and Character

One of the big differences between the folks I describe as “neurotic” and those who are to some degree disturbed in character is the degree to which they have developed a mature and functional conscience.

Neurotics often have well-developed and sometimes excessively active conscience or superego.  They have a huge sense of right and wrong.  They strive very hard (perhaps too hard at times) to meet what they believe to be their social obligations. They will sometimes set standards for themselves that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet. The demands they impose on themselves frequently engender a significant amount of stress. They are prone to taking on inordinate burdens, proverbially carrying the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. When something goes wrong, they quickly ask themselves what more they can do to help make the situation better. They also judge themselves harshly when they don’t feel that they have done enough. Neurotics hear quite clearly that little voice that speaks to most of us about how we should conduct ourselves, and they become easily unnerved when they don’t do as they believe they should.

The conscience of the disordered character, on the other hand, is remarkably underdeveloped and impaired. Most disturbed characters don’t hear that little voice in their heads that urge most of us to do right or admonish most of us when we’re contemplating doing wrong. They don’t “push” themselves to take on responsibilities, and don’t “arrest” themselves when they want to do something they shouldn’t do. If they do hear that little voice, they can silence (or “compartmentalize”) it with great ease.  But for many disturbed characters, that voice is quite weak in the first place. In the most severe disturbances of character, conscience is not simply weak, underdeveloped, or flawed, but absent altogether. Even the capacity to form a conscience is sometimes nonexistent.  Dr. Robert Hare aptly named his book about the most severely disordered character, the psychopath, Without Conscience. It’s hard to imagine there are individuals with no conscience at all. That’s one of the main reasons such people are able to prey upon others. Very few can believe that the person they’ve been dealing with is as heartless or remorseless as they intuitively might suspect.

In my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I give considerable attention to the disordered character’s impaired capacity to experience shame and guilt. This deficiency plays a large role in the malformation of their conscience and subsequent character development. But disturbed characters generally possess other qualities that affect their impaired conscience formation, such as inhibition deficits, and pro-social motivational deficits. In other words, they have problems delaying or denying urges to gratify impulses or desires. They also are not inclined to “push” themselves to “go after” or pursue goals that serve the interests of others (as well as themselves) but do not have any immediate lure or appeal or don’t appear to carry an immediate payoff.

In many of my workshops, I’ve responded to questions about what I think lies at the heart of healthy conscience formation. I respond with a phrase that rhymes and summarizes one of the key factors: “Internalization of a societal prohibition, is ultimately an act of submission.” That is, whenever a person makes it a part of his or her belief system to refrain from doing what they are otherwise tempted to do, it is because they have willingly submitted themselves to higher power or authority, enabling them to adopt a standard of conduct that serves the greater good. As I outline in both my books, this explains why the two most disturbed characters: narcissists and the aggressive personalities, have so much trouble forming good consciences. Egotistic personalities have an inflated sense of self-worth and recognize no “higher power.”  They set themselves above the expectations most folks try to meet.  The aggressive personalities are at constant war with externally-imposed demands, and resist the internalization of society’s values and standards of conduct from very early on in their character development.

Lacking in mature conscience, possessing a diminished capacity to experience shame and guilt, and lacking in the capacity to genuinely empathize with others, many of the more severely disturbed characters are also unable to have genuine remorse for their hurtful acts, whether they be acts of commission or omission.  While they might have superficial regret for some actions, especially if they’ve paid a personal price of some sort for them, they rarely experience the kind of true contrition that might prompt them to change their ways.

It’s very hard to develop a conscience later in life.  That’s why if a person finds him or herself in a relationship with a significantly disturbed character, waiting for them to “grow up” and come to some sense of right and wrong is often a futile enterprise.  Nonetheless, one can always hold such folks to account.  Problem is that neurotics are often willing to be the conscience for everyone, including those around them with impaired characters.  This not only makes life miserable for the neurotic, but also “enables” the irresponsible behavior of the character deficient person with whom they might be involved to continue unabated.  That’s why getting a more balanced perspective with respect to issues of personal responsibility is key to surviving relationships with disturbed characters.