Tag Archives: personality disorder

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

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

As I mention both in my book Character Disturbance and in a prior article (See: Personality and Character Disorders – Pt 7: A Wrap-Up), Borderline personalities are perhaps the most misunderstood of all the personality types.  Although psychiatry officially categorizes Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as a distinct syndrome and personality style, I’m among several who recognize that the personality “style” of the borderline really emerges by default – the result of the individual’s failure to solidify a solid and stable sense of self. Some theorists even conceptualize the borderline syndrome as a “disorder of the self.”  The folks we label “borderline,” therefore, are individuals whose personalty never quite came together.  And it’s because of this personality integration failure that they not only appear to have a distinctively erratic, unpredictable, and unstable manner of coping but also frequently display features of other personality disturbances such as narcissism, dependence, manipulation proneness, etc.  For these and many other reasons, coming to an accurate understanding of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can be quite a challenging task.

The term “borderline” has an interesting history.  Back in the days when all personality styles were viewed as different stylized manifestations of a person’s neurosis (i.e. “neurotic styles”) and all mental illness was seen as either a matter of having some degree or form of neurosis (the condition in which defenses were intact despite their lack of full effectiveness and the person was in some way dysfunctional but still in contact with reality and capable of rational thought) or psychosis (the condition in which all defenses had broken down and the person could no longer judge reality or think rationally), the term “borderline” was applied to those individuals who appeared to be on the border between neurosis and psychosis because of the highly unstable, irrational nature of their manner of coping.  And indeed, some borderline personalities have long been noted to be prone to brief but generally reversible psychotic episodes.

There’s always been a lot of confusion – even among professionals – about how to best perceive and deal with borderline individuals.  There’s also been a lot of uncertainty and confusion when it comes to making the diagnosis.  That’s because by nature borderline individuals can display features of a variety of different personality types.  But once you accept the notion that the borderline syndrome is really the result of a person’s failure to solidify a singular, solid, stable sense of self, things get clearer.

While we unfortunately have only one label for the borderline syndrome, no two borderline personalities are completely alike. Depending on what innate traits and acquired habits are more dominant in them, borderline personalities can appear very different from one another.  Individuals with a weak sense of self but whose dominant personality traits are of the “submissive” variety, for example, behave very differently (e.g., “clingy,” dependent) from those with strong narcissistic and/or aggressive personality traits in their makeup (e.g., manipulative, self-indulgent, impulsive). Moreover, the traits that tend to dominate a borderline personality’s makeup make all the difference in the world with respect to how “neurotic” vs. character disturbed that person is. Still, there are some behaviors that so often accompany a person’s failure to develop a well-integrated and stable sense of self (e.g., impulsive and erratic behavior, labile emotions and rapid mood shifts, explosive anger displays, self-damaging and  self-injurious gestures and acts, highly intense but equally chaotic interpersonal involvements and enmeshments, chronic fears of abandonment, and periodic deterioration into more severe forms mental illness) that their presence alone is sufficient for most clinicians to confer upon someone the diagnosis of BPD.

The next two articles will take an even closer look at the Borderline syndrome, the typical features that accompany it, the factors that make it difficult for some individuals to develop and sound and stable sense of self, the types of problems that can plague a relationship (including both intentional and unintentional manipulation) when someone has borderline tendencies or perhaps even BPD, and the prospects someone with borderline personality characteristics has for healing.

Next week will usher in the 19th year in print for In Sheep’s Clothing.  I’m deeply indebted to all those whose word-of-mouth recommendations of this book have not only kept it a bestseller for such an unprecedented term but also have prompted its international reach to expand so widely and consistently over the years.  That same strong word-of-mouth is also helping to make Character Disturbance the definitive manual for understanding and dealing with disturbed characters of all types and to bring a small niche market book like The Judas Syndrome to a wide audience.  I am most grateful for all the support from readers, especially those who took the time to post such positive reviews on Amazon.

Last week, I was on vacation, and because the Character Matters program that aired was a rebroadcast, no live calls could be taken. But I’ll be back at the mic this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern (6 pm Central) time and will be happy to take your calls.  It should prove a particularly interesting program because among the topics discussed will be psychopathy and its presence throughout history. Also, look for an announcement soon about an upcoming “webinar” that will also permit live interactive dialog among all participants.

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

A Rare But Potentially Dangerous Personality Disorder

Among the more serious personality disturbances, there’s a disorder you hardly ever hear about.  Even when it manifests itself, this disorder is often neither recognized for what it is nor properly diagnosed.  But when someone has Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD), believe me, you know it, whether or not you know the right label to apply to it or you fully understand its dynamics.  You know always know something’s dreadfully wrong when somebody has PPD because of how unnerving it is to have any kinds of dealings with them.  Just like when you encounter psychopathic personalities, you can sometimes feel the hair on the back of your neck stand on end when you deal with someone who has this disorder.  That chilling feeling is your nature-given intuitive warning system telling you something is seriously wrong with the person you’re dealing with and something really bad could easily happen, especially if you should do or say anything that upsets them in some way.  Given how serious this personality disorder is, you have to wonder why you don’t hear much more about it.  And in the aftermath of the shootings at UC Santa Barbara, I thought it well worth visiting this subject, the reason for which will become clearer momentarily.

Like others, I was deeply moved by the tragic stabbing and shooting of several innocents by another social “misfit” with a vendetta of some type. But when I looked very closely at the all the known information about Elliot Roger – his lengthy history of treatment for psychological problems and his self-proclaimed hatred of the women who’d supposedly spurred his amorous advances – and the closer I looked and the more I reflected on rants and manifesto he posted on YouTube and other social media, the more it became apparent to me that attributing this wanton killer’s actions merely to him being a “high-functioning” autism spectrum child (i.e. having Asperger’s Disorder) or a serious “misogynist” (there appears little doubt misogyny was a big factor) misses the mark when it comes to understanding the depths of his pathology.  And not having his pathology correctly pegged might also have significantly contributed to many not recognizing the full extent of his dangerousness.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me to confer a formal diagnosis in the absence of sufficient firsthand information and corroborative data.  And it’s impossible to fairly judge all the possible missteps and misjudgments that might have contributed to the failure of the mental health system and law enforcement’s to prevent what might have been preventable.  But there are aspects of this case that simply scream for some attention and scrutiny, so I feel obliged to share a few thoughts – in no small measure because it’s quite likely someone reading this article might have encountered a person with PPD, didn’t really know what to make of it at the time, and could have been much better served (or protected) if they had enough information.

I include PPD in my descriptions of the major personality disturbances in Character Disturbance (see pp. 127-128) but I now lament not going into greater depth.  So for the benefit of the readers, here, in a nutshell, is what someone with Paranoid Personality Disorder looks like:

  • Paranoid personalities exhibit a persistent, pervasive pattern of mistrust of the intentions and motivations of others.
  • Paranoid personalities are highly sensitive to personal setbacks and perceived slights, rebuffs, and injuries by others.
  • Paranoid personalities bear grudges and harbor resentments, often holding onto them with tenacity and using them to justify a hostile stance toward others.
  • Paranoid personalities can misconstrue even the most neutral or benign events as evidence of conspiracies, ill-intentions, and justification to mistrust
  • Paranoid personalities often have an unrealistic, exaggerated sense of self-importance, are self-absorbed and unduly self-concerned, and therefore cannot accept the blame for personal failures (i.e. have some malignant narcissism).
  • Paranoid personalities are predisposed to aggress in the face of perceived threats to their worth or safety.
  • The paranoid features of this personality type are not merely the result of a psychosis but rather are part and parcel of the person’s typical coping “style.”

Now here’s the real kicker about (and some would even argue the “core” of) the paranoid personality:  Even though they’re usually not truly delusional, their beliefs border on the delusional.  And under stress, folks with PPD can easily “decompensate” (i.e. deteriorate from their usual level of functioning) and become truly delusional (i.e. experience a psychotic break).  Anyone who examines closely the character and content of the rants made by Mr. Rodger cannot help but see how delusional he was not only in his perceptions of others but also in his appraisal of himself.  And that’s what made him so dangerous (People with PPD are not completely devoid of danger when they’re not in a decompensated, delusional state but are generally able to exercise better impulse control and practical judgment).  And the fact that he was so dangerous and the way both our mental health system and our law enforcement system work left them unable to protect folks from him is a genuine disgrace.

Just how broken our mental health care systems and legal systems are when it comes to the severely disturbed is probably fodder for another series of articles.  But hopefully today’s article will help make some sense of yet another senseless tragedy and provide some helpful and perhaps potentially life-saving information to those who know or have known someone with PPD.

I’ll be talking more about the Elliot Rodger case and PPD on this Sunday evening’s Character Matters program at 7 pm EDT. And I’ll be making some announcements about new foreign editions of In Sheep’s Clothing.

 

Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

 

Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Therapy and the Face of Real Change

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

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

Q:  Why are you here today?

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

Q:  And who is “they?”

A:  My lawyer.

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

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

Q:  You’ve had therapy before?

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

Q:  Were you depressed?

A:  I was when I got there!

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

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

Q:  Were there other problems?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy

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

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

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

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

Aggressive Personalities: Part 1

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

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

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

To the YouTube video segment itself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rxI-ik9Ick

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

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

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

https://www.facebook.com/pages/America-My-Home/150820435009727?ref=hl

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N85l7Yc6OtQ

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rxI-ik9Ick

Why Character Matters

As most readers of my books, web articles, and other writings already know, I focus a lot on matters of character, especially certain personality types best defined by their various disturbances of character.  But why all the fuss, you might ask? Isn’t it rather pointless to focus so much attention on an issue that’s been around since humankind started roaming the earth?  The answer is simple:  Now, more than ever, character matters because the Western world is in the midst of a character crisis the likes of which has not been seen in modern times, and the ramifications of it significantly effect every aspect of our lives.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in rocket science (or psychology, for that matter) to know that there is something particularly menacing going on in our culture. People like Bernie Madoff (he’s by no means the only such person) defraud thousands and rip-off millions, not only with no compunction but with the audacity to lay blame on the “greedy” individuals who bought into his scheme.  Then there’s a guy like Scott Peterson who feigns sadness over disappearance of his wife while all the time harboring no real remorse for dumping her body and that of the unborn child within her in the sea simply to pursue an affair.  Still yet, there’s the likes of Charlie Sheen, who despite all the awareness in the world about the dangers of substance use, and despite the good fortune of having a hit show that made him millions, placed everything he claimed to value at risk to lead a life of wild abandon and proudly proclaimed himself above the need to bow to anyone or anything.  It appears quite obvious:  something is very seriously wrong here.

I’m sure most folks can readily identify the many explanations sociologists have given over the years for the social ills that plague us.  Once it was simply accepted as gospel that poverty was at the root of crime and inner city decay.  And almost everyone has heard the theory that persons who abuse and violate the rights of others must have been the victims of abuse and neglect as youngsters.  And while there’s no denying the ill effects of poverty, injustice, abuse, and neglect, it’s now become clear that  our once blindly accepted theories can’t explain the actions of Madoff, Peterson, and so…so many others!

What we’re slowly coming to appreciate (and which I’ve been beating a drum about ever since my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing, and continue to do in my latest book, Character Disturbance) is that developing character is a very delicate social process that requires time, energy, a strong family unit, and powerful community support structures.  As I say in my books, none of us are born civilized.  We are noble little savages from the start.  We have evolved, but we still retain much of our “reptilian” brains.  We have to be taught how to behave responsibly and we have to be ever so rightly guided in order to develop sufficient human empathy and conscience to function in a socially conscientious way.   But strong, enduring families are rare and the social institutions that traditionally reinforced the most fundamental aspects of character development have eroded.  We now have freedom in greater abundance than ever before.  But we also have fewer clear guidelines about how to function with integrity.  And individuals who have not done too well in shaping their personalities do not face a social climate that reveres and rewards good character, disapproves of irresponsibility, and readily and appropriately sanctions wrongful conduct.

It’s hard to think of a social problem we have that isn’t in some way directly connected to the character crisis.  The U.S. financial system and economy nearly collapsed because of a few really rotten scoundrels, and people who have worked all their lives and paid all their dues are on the verge of not seeing their benefits because so many have abused and exploited the necessary support systems.  And there’s no benefit to pointing fingers, because there’s so much blame to go around.

This post isn’t really meant to be a social commentary.  It’s more a continuation of the drum beat.   It’s time we faced the true source of so many of our ills.  It’s time to take a very long, hard, and serious look at the social structures that need to be strengthened to provide an atmosphere in which children can grow – not into entitled, unbridled, unscrupulous personalities – but into principled, conscientious, responsible characters.  Free societies are totally dependent upon character.  It’s what makes it all work.  And that’s why – as I beat the drum one more time – character matters so much.

Another Day in It’s All About Me Hell

Recently I received a request for advice from an individual that brought home to me in a big way the phenomenon of our age that I discuss in my new book Character Disturbance.  So, I thought it might be helpful to reproduce an edited version of letter, and to discuss its implications:

I am a 29 year-old female.  Nearly 3 years ago I got engaged to a man whom I’ve loved for 10 years.  We’ve now been married 2 years and we are expecting our first baby.  This man still treats me like a princess.

However, while I was still engaged to my now husband, I started an affair with a colleague (my boss at that time) who is 19 years older.  He is also married, and he has an elder son 3 years younger than me.  I really don’t know how I got as involved with him as I did because I was really in love with my fiance at the time.  But my colleague was charming, funny, powerful, strong, sexy, smart and quite persistent.   What could I do?  There was so much about him I simply couldn’t resist.  After nearly a year of denial (first to myself, then to him only), I gave up and we lived out a strong and passionate love story! I never before had such striking emotional and sexual experiences! I thought I loved him, and he appeared as though he loved me too.

Eventually, the affair changed because I was becoming more demanding and more jealous. Once I even thought I would escape with him, only if he wanted to (I kept wanting him to want me so bad he’ take me away), and it seemed (at least to me) that he might just do that. But the fact is that I got married to my fiance and we moved to another country after the wedding.  Still, this other man and I chatted all the time, had online sex and even watched sexy movies together online.  We regularly (but not too often) met and had some beautiful 3-4 day escapes. However, I started to ask for more, it was becoming an obsession (even sexual) for me and, I guess, also for him, at least partly. We also started playing Second Life (the virtual-world game).  During this time, he assured me that a “second life” was only fantasy and that I was the only one he was with apart from his wife.  But then I discovered he was not only playing the online game with other women too but also having virtual sex with them.  When he realized he was discovered he told me it was only a game and sent me a loveable email telling me I was the only one for him.  He also told me he was seeing a psychologist for other problems and that I should understand.

In a way, everything changed and I just couldn’t believe him anymore after all that.  Besides, he never gave me as much as I really wanted from him and he never really offered to escape with me.  Sometimes I wonder if this whole affair has been an illusion on my part  I also wonder if this man is really good enough for me or if he’s just a middle-aged man with mental disorder.

My problem is that I don’t how to forget him.  I do wonder if he ever really loved me and whether our relationship was love or sexual obsession.  I often feel like he doesn’t deserve me. But sex with him was fantastic.  How do I go about forgetting him?

This woman’s complaint reveals just about every point I make in new book about what makes disturbed characters behave in the irresponsible ways they do.  She claims that she has loved her now husband for 10 years and freely admits he treats her like a princess.  But real princesses of good character are awed by the responsibility that comes with being a representative, figurehead, and role model, whereas other so-called “princesses” are really troubled characters who are so enamored of themselves and feel so entitled that they seek only to be gratified and indulged.

This woman’s level of self-centeredness and self-indulgence is pathological.  And she expects to be swept up and carried away not only from any semblance of a more mundane existence (disturbed characters often crave excitement and engage in destructive hedonism) but from any sense of responsibility to her family (after all, she does have a husband and child).  I responded to her this way:

You married a man with whom you have a child and whom you claim still treats you “like a princess.”  And while you were engaged to this man, you began an affair with another man and continued it during your marriage.  The man you had the affair with was a man willing to cheat on his own wife, and was engaging in virtual cheating (at least) with others.  Neither of you had any compunctions about your behavior and you appear to openly revel and relish in the drama of it all.  Several times, you expressed the hope that this man would help you “escape.”  But you describe no circumstances from which any rational person might feel a reasonable need to escape.  Rather, it’s a responsible life from which you seek to distance yourself.

The best way for you to forget this man is to turn your attention away from him and start focusing on the tremendous psychological unhealthiness in you.  You have a husband and a child, yet somehow for you life is all about you and your insatiable appetite for excitement and self-gratification.  There are reasons why you were attracted to a person with as few compunctions as yourself, just as there are reasons why you place drama and sexual titillation over genuine love and regard.  Be sure to secure a counselor or therapist who has lots of experience dealing with personality and character issues.  Your character disturbance appears quite significant and making a respect-worthy character of yourself will likely take years of unwavering effort.

Disturbed characters’ self-indulgence always creates a living hell for those around them but can also create one for themselves.  This woman’s life will be a continual shipwreck until she makes up her mind to start accepting some responsibility for her actions and their impact on those she supposedly loves.  And traditional therapy will not only not help her but has the potential to greatly prolong her persistent dream to “escape” the only true paths to health.  You can read more about folks like her, what really makes them tick, and what needs to be done to “help” them in my new book.