Tag Archives: neurotic

Are Manipulative Men and Women Different?

I’ve gotten many emails over the years asking about the differences between men and women with disturbances of character and who manipulate.  And very recently I received an inquiry from someone who had read some of my articles and wondered if I thought only men could be covertly aggressive.  Let me be clear:  women are just as capable as men of manipulation and the other kinds of problematic behaviors I’ve written about in my blog posts and books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.  I also have an archive full of stories about manipulative girlfriends, ex-wives, etc. and two whole chapters in In Sheep’s Clothing that describe covertly-aggressive females.  Generally speaking, there’s little difference between manipulative men and women.  Both use the same tactics (although women might tend to prefer certain tactics over others) and both engage in covertly aggressive behaviors for the same reason:  to get what they want while not overtly exposing their agenda.

My experience has been that on the neurotic vs. disturbed character spectrum, female manipulators tend to be slightly more neurotic than their male counterparts.  And they are more often motivated to employ covert strategies because they either have little experience with or haven’t had much success with more direct, assertive approaches, while men who prefer covert-aggression do so simply because they’ve found it effective. Women who manipulate are also more likely to have other co-existing personality characteristics.  Still, it would be wrong to conclude that manipulative men and women are all that different from one another.

Gender bias can often color our judgment when it comes to correctly perceiving someone’s character.  So, when it comes to judging manipulative behavior, best to simply look for the tactics a person uses and how often they use them.  That’s the most reliable way to tell the kind of person with whom you’re dealing.

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.

What Neurotics Don’t Get About Disturbed Characters

A while back, I was asked a question that dramatically illustrates why some people get hooked into troubling relationships.  Because there is so much educational value to the letter, I’m reproducing an edited (and slightly altered) version of it here:

I was with my ex for almost 5 years.  We broke up about 4 months ago.  I am finding it really hard to move and on, and I keep churning over in my mind everything about our relationship.

I actually think we had a great first year together.  He had some commitment issues, but I think he worked thorugh them a bit. After 2 years together, he steadily became violent and very angry and unpredictable at times. The relationship wasn’t seriously violent, but every 2-3 months there might be grabbing, pushing, squeezing me around my neck, and throwing things at me. This kind of thing was always followed by apologies and I kept forgiving and trying to move on.

My ex is always a great person to his friends, who all see him as carefree and usually the life and soul of the party.  But I experienced the brunt of his anger, usually after a night out, but just about anytime. He was verbally abusive, too and it was horrible to endure his torments at the time but then it would pass.

We tried couples counseling for a year and a half.  He discovered he had some issues, especially because he always blamed me for things.  He worked on his commitment issues and then gave me a ring about 2 years ago. But he found it hard to follow through on any of the agreements we made in counseling.  And when I would bring things to his attention, he would accuse me of being too critical and blame me for everything.

Eventually, we broke up. I didn’t want to, but I knew the violence wasn’t improving, even with counseling, and he also stopped apologizing for it. So, I accepted that we couldn’t be together.

Since the breakup, I have had a terrible and heart broken few months. But he immediately started a new sexual relationship with a friend that lasted for a couple months and a week after that ditched her and started dating yet another woman.

I now wonder if all the violence was my fault.  He kept telling me it was.  I wonder if he is likely to be violent in other relationships or if it was just something about me that cause the problem. I can’t believe how fast he moved on a has is into another sexual relationship only a month after breaking up with me.  I Just don’t understand any of it.

I think there were real strengths in our relationship and once he said he loved me for most of it. I really think the relationship was okay except when he was angry and violent.

I don’t understand.  Did he really love me?  Why would he not be as heartbroken as me when things ended and how could he show such disrespect for our long relationship (we even owned a home together) by moving on to others so quickly?

When I wrote my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I was careful to revise it twice to emphasize the prime reason people of decent character or who may be “neurotic” to some degree simply “don’t get it” with respect to individuals who have marked deficiencies of character.  And in my new book, Character Disturbance, I go to great lengths to highlight the many and significant differences between most folks and people of disturbed character.  The main reason neurotics not only enter but also become trapped in abusive relationships is because they fail to recognize that disturbed characters are fundamentally different from most folks on multiple, significant dimensions of interpersonal functioning.  People get trapped because traditional psychology frameworks have reinforced their own notions that everyone – especially down deep – must be fundamentally alike.  Unfortunately, such thinking is often a recipe for disaster and unhappiness.

I responded to the person who inquired in the following fashion:

You already seem to have a good deal of insight about some things, but something appears in the way of you accepting the most important things about your former situation.  You seem to know that this man had “commitment” issues, that he blamed others (especially you) for his bad behavior, and that he even failed to honor pledges he made in therapy.  What you don’t seem to want to accept is that not all people share the same values, see things the same way, or have the same willingness to discipline themselves and conform their behavior to accepted standards.  Unlike your average “neurotic” individual who tries to do right and always seeks to “understand,” disturbed characters do as they please, hurt others, and adamantly refuse to blame themselves for their unprincipled or unruly conduct.

Rather than wonder some of the things you ask, the much bigger questions for you to answer are twofold: what keeps you from recognizing that some people are very different from you and have deeply flawed characters; and what is it about yourself that so willingly questions yourself and has a hard time letting go even when someone has proven themselves to lack the character to be a worthy partner in a relationship?

The questions above are the kinds of things a “neurotic” person might work with a counselor or therapist to answer.  But it’s also important that the counselor or therapist understands character disturbance and knows how to assist a person to become less neurotic and more empowered in their interpersonal relations.

Will He Ever Change?

A while back, I received the following letter from Jane in Oregon:

I read your book In Sheep’s Clothing for the first time and really liked it.  I am also happy to say that I have found your website and other blogs that feature your work and have read many of your articles.

I recognize myself as a kind of “neurotic” person like you describe and the man I’m dating as a disturbed character.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I started knowing him better that I realized something wasn’t quite right. But, as I hadn’t been in a similar situation before and with him being a very smart person, it was hard for me to see things clearly.

Now after reading your book and postings I have finally understood what the source of trouble was – his irresponsible, narcissistic, hedonistic self – all expressions of his underdeveloped character. I was just wondering what the treatment is if any? I’ve read here that such people (I think they are categorized as Cluster B) don’t usually change.  Is there any hope for these types of people?

Letters like this one and comments over the years from folks at workshops prompted me to write my latest book, Character Disturbance, which is set for wide release by Parkhurst Brothers at the end of July.  In this book, I address what it takes to make changes in persons with underdeveloped character.  Contrary to popular belief, the situation with disturbed characters is not hopeless.  What is hopeless as well as pointless is trying to relate to or intervene with such folks through traditional techniques and methods.  Traditional methods focus on feelings, unresolved emotional conflicts, and most especially, things hidden from consciousness.  Traditional methods also also try to give a person insight they don’t have into problems as the principal way of solving them.  But disturbed characters are already aware of the bad things they do.  They’re aware but don’t care.  They like the way they do things, even if others don’t.  And their feelings are not at the root of problems.  Instead, their distorted way of thinking about things and their irresponsible habitual behaviors are the culprits.  So, dealing with disturbed characters effectively requires a completely different strategy from traditional methods.  In Character Disturbance, I present some vignettes that clearly illustrate the different approach that needs to be taken.


The Death of Neurosis?

Recently, I received the following inquiry from a blog reader that fairly well summarizes the kinds of issues many therapists face today when trying to help people with their life’s difficulties:

I don’t know what I should do.  I’m in love with a married man.  He has  kids from both in and outside of his marriage. My mom can’t accept even the thought of him being with me. I do realize the problems we’d face as a couple, and do my best to control myself. He does, also, and both of us know that we don’t really have a future together because he’s made it clear he’ll never get a divorce and my parents won’t ever accept him as my life partner. Still, I really want him and I think we really love each other.

Please, tell me what I should do.  I really need some advice!

My response to this woman is also illustrative of the shift in philosophy necessary these days to help people of immature, disturbed, or fractured character change:

Giving you direct advice in such a situation is fraught with both danger and impropriety.  But it seems that you already have abundant insight.  These are the things you clearly indicate that you already know:

The man is married.

He will never divorce.

He has fathered children within and outside of his marriage.

Your parents couldn’t possibly accept him.

You know that your relationship with him is fraught with “problems” and full of risk.

Your turmoil stems from the fact that despite knowing how foolish this involvement might be, you still really want this man.

So, it’s not really clear what your question is.  The fact that you have feelings for this man is certainly not the issue.  You can’t help your feelings.  But whether you allow your feelings to completely overrun your better judgment is quite another matter.  Mature, adult life is all about being guided in your actions by values and sound judgment as opposed to letting your urges and impulses run the show.  No one can do your growing up for you and there’s danger in relying on someone else’s “advice” to guide your every step.

Best advice:  Acknowledge your feelings and desires but don’t let them drive your decisions in life.

Back in the “good old days” of psychotherapy, counselors of one type or another would help individuals who were riddled with insecurities and fears gain “insight” about the underlying reasons for their unhappiness.  These were the days in which “neurosis” was still the primary ailment therapists treated.  But as I have written about many times, truly pathological levels of neurosis have all but disappeared from the landscape. Neurosis is still with us, of course, but most neurotics are highly functioning, responsible people.  The bigger problem these days is the gross immaturity disturbance of character so many individuals possess.  And instead of fears and insecurities being at the root of their problems, the real culprits are their distorted ways of thinking about things and the impulsive, undisciplined, and irresponsible ways they allow themselves to behave.

In the brand new revision of my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I address many of these issues.  And in my new book Character Disturbance, set for wide release June 30 from Parkhurst Brothers, I explore these issues in great depth as well as give helpful guidelines about how to deal with such issues professionally as well as interpersonally.

Comments from a Reader of “In Sheep’s Clothing”

I get mail from readers of my first book In Sheep’s Clothing several times a week.  The comments are frequently quite similar but every now and then one stands out and inspires me to continue the work I’ve done for many years.  Recently, someone wrote:
Dear Dr. Simon,
I just finished reading your book, In Sheep’s Clothing. No words can express the gratitude that I have for this obvious manifestation of your love and hard work.  From your introduction onward, I sensed that you were, not only enlightened about this subject, but that you had a sound, moral and ethical motive for writing the book.  That’s what drew me to you.
I’ll spare you the details of my life, but as you have probably heard thousands of times, I am a victim of a covert-aggressive, manipulating person.  And to make matters worse, I now realize that I am a very neurotic individual.  I didn’t know that before seeing myself in your book.  And I’m not ashamed of it, but I see how it made me vulnerable all my life.  Now, I think I am on the way to reclaiming my life, and finding self-respect and confidence.  Your book has equipped me to do that and to take on the challenges that still lie ahead.
The person who manipulated me for years was incarcerated last year for a serious crime that came to light 2 years ago.  At first, I played my typical role of the sympathizer/empathizer, and offered to get this person “help” him and to support him.  But I finally realized that I’d been enabling him to be irresponsible all his life and to get away with all the things he’d done to cause me pain throughout my life!  When I finally drew the line, he used all the tactics you explained in your book.  In the past these tactics have left me completely depressed and my family and business suffered.   But now I am aware of the tactics and also aware of myself enough to know that I need to be more assertive and rid myself of the burden of his irresponsibility.
To the point:  Your book helped me understand why I am such an “approval junkie,” how I got manipulated, why I always hated confrontation, and why I had so little confidence and self-respect – even though I have done so many good things in my life and achieved a measure of success in my pursuits.  I intend to spend many days meditating on the new perspectives your book offers and connecting them to my life experiences with people of all different characters.  And I will strive to no longer sabotage myself by allowing the disturbed characters I encounter to manipulate me.
You may not ever fully know the overwhelming feelings your work is helping people like me to experience.  But I wanted to let you know how much your work has meant.  I wish you the best, and thank you again.
M.K.  Virginia
Notes like this are why I continue my primary mission despite health issues that have forced me to cease active practice.  And the need for more information prompted me to strike a deal with Parkhurst Brothers Publishers to release a brand new edition of In Sheep’s Clothing (hitting stores March 31st) and to distribute a new, more in-depth book based on material compiled some years ago, Character Disturbance, set for wide distribution on June 30th.
My sincerest thanks to all the patrons of my books, blogs, website and other works.

Neurotic or Character Disorder? Criterion 4 – Shame

Disordered characters don’t feel shame like neurotics do.  Although pop psychology has given shame a bad name, the ability to feel it is a mark of good character.  I wrote recently about how neurotic individuals and disturbed characters differ greatly on the issue of guilt.  Guilt and shame are related.  Guilt is the bad feeling we get about something we’ve done.  Shame feeling badly about who we are.  It’s when we indict our character, not merely our behavior.  The popular wisdom has been that shame is always bad and should be avoided.  That same popular wisdom is that it’s only helpful to feel guilt about a specific harmful behavior.  Neurotics not only feel guilt more easily that disturbed characters, they’re also more prone to feeling ashamed of themselves when they do something they think reflects negatively on them.  As a result, they often motivate themselves to become better people by working hard to fashion a self-image that they can live with.  So, when they do something reprehensible, they not only feel badly about what they’ve done, but they also feel badly about the kind of person they imagine could have done such a thing.  This is not bad, especially when they vow that they will sincerely strive to be the kind of person that won’t do such things again. 

One mark of a character disorder is a person’s relative incapacity not only to be deficient in feelings of guilt when committing harmful acts, but to lack any sense of shame for the kind of person they must be to commit such acts.  Shamelessness is a major distinguishing characteristic of the disturbed or disordered character.  It’s hard to be genuinely repentant and also hard to make good on a pledge to not commit the same kind of hurtful act again when you don’t really feel like a shmuck for doing the bad thing you did in the first place.  Neurotics, of course, tend to be overly sensitive and get far too down on themselves when they mess up.  So, too much shame can be a bad thing.  But shame in itself is not necessarily bad, especially in the right doses.  The disturbed characters among us would not be so unhealthy if they could reflect on the history of harm they’ve done to others and feel just badly enough about themselves to consider changing the kind of person they are.

Neurotic vs. Character Disorder? Criterion Three – Guilt

People often get manipulated because they misjudge the character of their manipulator.  We have a tendency to want to see everyone else as basically pretty much like us.  We want to think that they think the same way, care about the same things, and feel the same way we do.  But individuals with disturbed characters are very different from most people, especially those who tend to be neurotic. 


In prior posts, I’ve highlighted how different character disorders are from neurotics when it comes to matters of conscience and the degree to which they experience anxiety.  The third major criterion on which these two personality types differ involves their capacity to experience genuine guilt.  Having the well-developed consciences that they do, neurotic individuals are quick to feel badly if they think they’ve done something wrong or harmful.  They beat themselves up internally and pledge to themselves that they will do better or try harder.  In contrast, disturbed characters don’t feel guilty enough when they hurt someone else or engage in wrongdoing.  When others point out the error of their ways, they shrug it off.  They don’t beat themselves up but rather they often attack their accusers. 


In emotionally abusive relationships, the disordered character will often use “guilt-tripping” as a manipulation tactic.  This is because neurotic individuals are easily swayed when their guilt button is pushed.  So the task for the manipulator is simple:  make the other person feel guilty and you’ll be able to have your way with them.  On the other hand, when the conscientious person tries to lay guilt upon the disordered character, it has no impact.  This is one way to tell if the person you’re in a relationship with is for the most part neurotic or character disordered.  

In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I outline all the major tactics disordered characters use to manipulate others.  In a soon to be released book, I present an in-depth look at what makes disturbed characters so different from most of us and how we have to approach relationships with them.    

Neurotic vs. Character Disorder? Criterion Two – Conscience

Neurotics have well-developed and overactive consciences (i.e. superegos), whereas disordered characters have consciences that are under-developed and impaired.  Neurotics have a huge sense of right and wrong and always want to do the right thing.  They often set standards for themselves that are so high they’re virtually impossible to meet, causing themselves a significant amount of stress.  They tend to judge themselves overly harshly when they fail to meet expectations.  They take 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 a situation better. 


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 something they shouldn’t have.  Any qualms of conscience they might experience can be eliminated with great ease.  In the most severe disturbances of character (i.e. the psychopath or sociopath), conscience is not simply weak, underdeveloped, or flawed, but can be absent altogether. 


It’s really hard to fathom and accept that there are people in this world who simply don’t have the same degree capacity most of us have to be inwardly troubled when they contemplate doing things that are potentially very harmful to others or even themselves.  Not being able to accept this key difference between neurotics and disturbed characters can be a setup for possible victimization.  I’ve written about other important differences between neurotics and character disorders, such as how they differ with respect to experiencing “anxietyand will be elaborating on other differences in future posts as part of a series on the key differences between these two very different types of individuals. 

Neurotic or Character Disorder? – Criterion One: Anxiety


      Neurotics are very different from individuals with a character disorder on the dimension of anxiety.  Anxiety is that primal emotion (i.e. fear response) that we get when we feel threatened in some way.  When our fear is attached to a specific, identifiable circumstance, such as being in a room filled with a lot of people, having to take a test, or coming face to face with a snake, we call it a phobia.  When our apprehension does not appear connected to a specific thing or circumstance, is unidentifiable, unknown, or unconscious, we call it anxiety.  Experiencing too much anxiety, especially with regard to urges or issues that shouldn’t normally evoke high levels of anxiety is the number one way to know if someone is neurotic as opposed to character disordered.  Neurotics can suffer several a host of maladies that are either directly caused or exacerbated by their anxiety such as stress-related ulcers, tension headaches, fear-based avoidance of crowds or open places (i.e. agoraphobia), obsessive worry, fear of abandonment, etc.  


Character disordered individuals are notoriously nonchalant about the things that most others get upset about.  They don’t experience enough anxiety when it would be normal or even beneficial to do so.  The disturbed character doesn’t get apprehensive enough about his conduct.  He is too indifferent and unshaken when problems arise as the result of the way he does things, and he remains too unnerved and unperturbed in the face of conflict.  The disordered character doesn’t do the dysfunctional things he does because some past trauma has him too hung-up to do otherwise.  He does what he does because unlike the neurotic, he lacks the capacity to get hung-up enough to think twice about his behavior and inhibit himself and restrain his conduct.  A little of the neurotic’s typical apprehension would go a long way toward helping the disturbed character be more cautious or hesitant when it comes to doing the things he does that frequently cause problems. 


For several reasons that I have never fully understood, traditionally-oriented therapists and relatively neurotic individuals seem to insist upon ascribing fears and insecurities to disordered characters that simply don’t exist.  They will frequently misinterpret the behavior and motivations of character-disordered individuals and frame things inappropriately.  For example, some disordered characters have such a passion for novelty and such a craving for excitement that they constantly seek shallow, intense, and short-lived high-risk sexual involvements or other interpersonal entanglements.  But this thrill-seeking behavior is sometimes framed as a “fear” of intimacy or commitment.  I think this mistake is often made because it’s difficult for neurotic individuals to imagine why a person wouldn’t necessarily prefer a stable intimate relationship over multiple risky encounters unless they were in some way afraid of a deeper relationship.  This kind of thinking also reflects a long-held but unproven tenet of classical psychology theories that everyone will naturally gravitate toward the healthiest life choices unless they are hung-up by unconscious fears born of early trauma.  The disordered character is very different from the neurotic on this key criterion.  For the most part, neurotics experience too much anxiety.  Disturbed characters don’t experience enough anxiety, especially at times when some gut level apprehension would serve them and the rest of society well.