During my many years working with victims in abusive relationships, I heard the same types of questions asked over and over again: “Why can’t they see what they’re doing?”; “Do you think they really meant to hurt me?”; “Don’t they probably have ‘issues’ they’re unaware of and that they’ve never really faced before?”; and, “How do I get them to recognize the harm they do?” And because I had broad-based training as a therapist, including training in all the traditional approaches, at first even I believed that my role in helping disturbed characters change would be to assist them in getting in touch with the unconscious underpinnings of their behavior (e.g., early childhood trauma, mistrust of others, fear of intimacy, etc.). What a surprise it was to learn how very different in every respect the disturbed characters were from their victims in relationships, especially with respect to their levels of awareness.
A couple of years ago I posted an article titled: “Confessions of a Covert-Aggressive Personality.” It featured the testimony of someone who acknowledged many of the things I had been saying for years about certain personalities. And it quickly became by far the most widely-read post on this blog. I think that’s largely because it validated for a lot of folks what they had suspected in their hearts about their dysfunctional partners but still couldn’t bring themselves to believe.
At the present time, readers trying to access the original article are being re-directed to another article. The other article has some great information in it to be sure, but it lacks the focus of the original article with respect to the disturbed character’s awareness. The original article also featured the testimony of one person (though slightly altered and embellished with material from a few other sources to assure anonymity). So it seemed important to fashion another article on the original topic, but this time blending the testimonies of no fewer than 7 individuals who have contacted me directly through the blog and several others with whom I’ve come into contact via other means. Many have read one or both of my books and found themselves described accurately in them. And, as is often the case, some had finally reached a point in their lives when they decided it was time to take a serious look at their character and to begin the process of character re-construction. Their testimonies are remarkably similar, and in the “confession” that follows, I’ve taken great pains to borrow small passages and phrases from different testimonies, to edit the text so as to preserve gender neutrality, and to assemble the testimonies in such a way so as to make it impossible to identify any one individual while still illustrating the most notable characteristics these impaired characters have in common. The text of this “confession” will read as one person’s self-admissions. But it is actually a composite of many, fashioned in a way to drive the point home about the disturbed character’s level of awareness:
I have read your book In Sheep’s Clothing and have to admit that I am the “covert-aggressive personality” you describe. Every description you give fits me like a glove. I have all the thinking errors you talk about. I’ve always known I had them, but it was weird to see them laid out in black and white. And I think I could illuminate you a bit on some manipulation “tactics” I’ve used that you don’t mention in your book. I’ve always been a person determined to win and I’ve learned lots of ways to eventually get what I want or to get others to see things my way. But that’s beside the point. I’m now at the point in my life where I’m tired of all the trouble I’ve caused and I want to change the person I am. That wasn’t always the case. When my partner first gave me your book to read, I wanted to turn things around on them and make them think everything was all their fault. My pride was getting the better of me and I didn’t want them to think they had my number. So, I acted all offended, pretended I didn’t know what they were talking about, and tried to find as many examples as I could where I thought I could prove they were just as guilty, or maybe even more so, of many of the things they were confronting me about (guilting is one of my favorite “weapons”). But I’ve had to admit that I’ve made quite a mess of things over the years and I’m really wanting to face some things about myself and to make some changes.
Dr. Simon, I’ve been in many types of counseling over the years. And when I was younger, my parents put me into a hospital program. But back then, I liked the person I was and didn’t want to change. And it felt good to think I’d figured out how to get just about anything I wanted in life. So I played the game, gave “lip service” to everything, but in my heart I was determined to be the same person I’d always been. And I always knew what I was doing when I was manipulating others. I also knew what I was doing to them in the process because their reactions were so obvious and clear. The fact is I simply didn’t care. The only thing that really mattered to me was getting what I wanted and saving face. But I’m realizing more and more how much I have lost over the years because of that attitude. The big question I have now is how to change. I’ve read the “Ten Commandments of Character” you talk about in your other book [Character Disturbance], and I see where a lot of these things apply to me. Still, I wonder what it will take for me to actually put the things you talk about into practice.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could share with you the many other stories that would drive home the point about the disturbed character’s level of awareness. But I think the altered “confession” offered above illustrates matters fairly well. In fact it illustrates quite clearly five of the important differences that characterize folks who are primarily best thought of as “neurotic” to some degree and folks who are primarily impaired in character (these differences are discussed at length on pages 30-58 in Character Disturbance). Suffice it to say that if you’re dealing with someone in your life who fits the description I offer of the disturbed character, despite the fact that you might feel tempted to believe otherwise, they’re probably quite aware of the behavior that’s driving you nuts. This is such a crucial thing to remember, because it’s usually your doubt about whether they really know what they’re doing that leads you to mistrust your gut instincts and to be manipulated. And as to whether disturbed characters can or will change, I think the confession above says it all. They certainly can. The real question is whether time, circumstances, and personal reckonings have helped them acquire the motivation to do so.