Following the article Toxic Relationship Aftermath: Doubt, Mistrust, and Paranoia? , there’s been some good discussion and sharing of common experiences by relational abuse survivors. Several folks mentioned how unsettling it was on an emotional level for them not only to wake up to the realities about the impaired character of their former relationship partner but also to be more aware of the nature and prevalence of character disturbance once their eyes were open. Such comments suggested to me how important it would be to revisit and expand upon some of the fundamental precepts of the major psychological paradigms of human nature and behavior.
Let me say from the outset that I well know the summary of the more traditional psychology perspectives I’m about to offer is a bit of an oversimplification. But to fully understand the sometimes detrimental impact that some of our longest-standing paradigms for understanding human nature have had on our collective mindset, such a simplification is necessary. For the most part, traditional paradigms taught us:
- We’re all basically the same
- We’re all naturally inclined toward healthy, positive behaviors and relationships
- Traumatic circumstances (i.e. abuse, neglect, adverse circumstances, poverty, injustice, abandonment, etc.) are the reasons we socially malfunction
- As a result of our traumas, we develop fears and “defenses,” and it’s these fears and defenses that shape our personalities.
- Most of the time, when we malfunction, we don’t really even realize what we’re doing because our defenses keep us in the dark.
- With patience, love, understanding, everyone will let down their guard, become more aware, be their more genuine, loving self, and become healthy again.
After years of practicing psychology and long before I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing, I came to realize that the axioms stated above seemed to apply very well when talking about a certain group of people – those others have labeled and whom I affectionately refer to as “neurotic.” But there were other folks I was encountering who didn’t seem to fit within this paradigm at all. I slowly came to realize and had to admit:
- We’re not all alike. Some people are very different from most. They think differently and act differently – even feel differently.
- Not everyone has the same natural inclinations. And some folks seem to have had certain predispositions from a very early age that significantly affected their growth and development.
- Bad things happen to everyone, but not everyone responds the same way. And there are plenty of very dysfunctional people who experience little to no trauma growing up and just as many folks who are stellar characters who suffered all manner of adversity. So it can’t possibly be true that we’d all be psychologically healthy if it weren’t for the bad things that happened to us.
- An adequate human psychology simply has to consider more than just the emotion of fear and what people tend to do to manage their fears. A whole lot more goes into shaping a person’s character than just their fears and defenses. And it’s not just trauma and environment, either. There’s biology and innate predispositions and a host of other factors dynamically interacting to make someone the person they are.
- Not everyone is oblivious when they do bad things. People can and do act with full knowledge, awareness, and yet malevolent intention.
- Love and understanding simply will not cure all ills. Some folks need far more than that to acquire the motivation and the means necessary to change and grow.
As a result of my realizations, I began a much deeper study of all the available research on personality, and to make some very careful observations of the two groups of people with whom I’d been working: individuals who tended to be more “neurotic” and individuals who, for lack of a better term, appeared to be character-impaired or deficient. The more I worked with “neurotic” victims of abusive relationships with character-impaired persons, the more I realized not only how different they were from one another but also how detrimental the traditional frameworks actually were to really understanding them. And while the neurotics seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the traditional axioms (i.e. we’re all the same underneath; our fears and the defenses we’ve built mess us up; with enough love and understanding everyone gets better, etc.), and tacitly accepted them (they knew these axioms held much truth for them so it seemed reasonable they must hold true for everyone), subscribing to these traditional beliefs actually played a large role in how they were lured into and subsequently remained in abusive relationships! I also came to realize how well the individuals of the character-impaired variety knew how neurotics tended to view things and how they used this awareness to their advantage. As I would eventually assert in Character Disturbance, nobody, but nobody knows neurosis like a disturbed character. And I decided right then that my main mission in life would be to advance a new, more accurate, and more comprehensive paradigm for understanding human nature and behavior. Most especially, I wanted to introduce a psychology that was not so narrowly confined to what can go wrong with people when they’re riddled with fears and insecurities or scarred by trauma, but rather a psychology expanded to include what can go wrong when people are more inclined to fight than run, when they never acquired the ability to discipline their instincts, and when their unruliness and lack of conscientiousness – not their fears and insecurities – were the main cause of the problems and pain in their relationships.
What I never really expected to happen as the result of my early work but nonetheless turned out to be the biggest blessing in my life is that literally thousands of people began reporting that the “paradigm shift” I proposed (i.e. a way of looking at human nature and behavior) was the single biggest factor in their breaking free of a destructive relationship and carving out a more vital, empowered life for themselves. I couldn’t possibly have been more edified. But truly, it was just a beginning. The quest to provide folks with a more comprehensive and accurate way to perceive the human condition continues. And when we wrap-up the discussion on the issues commonly experienced in the aftermath of a toxic relationship, I’ll be introducing the series “Personality Development 101,” which will take a much more in-depth look at all that behavioral science has managed to learn about how people come to be the way they are. And judging from the wide range and sometimes contentious nature of opinions on the subject expressed in many of the comments over the past several weeks, the series should spark a very interesting discussion.