Over the past several weeks, we’ve been discussing the imperatives or “10 commandments” my experience with character-impaired individuals has taught me we must all observe during our formative years to develop (and thereafter to maintain) strength and integrity of character (see, for example: Mastering One’s Appetites: A Critical Character Challenge and Impulse Control and Will-Training: The Art of Self-Management). In the present short series, we’ll be discussing how certain innate tendencies and personality traits make it a particular challenge for some individuals to heed these “commandments” and acquire both conscience and character.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, (see, for example: Conscience and Character) forming a mature, healthy conscience is perhaps the most crucial aspect of character development. And forming such a conscience primarily requires two things: 1) a capacity for and sufficient degree of empathy for others and concern for their welfare, and 2) recognition of and respect for a “higher power” or authority. But individuals vary considerably in their capacity for empathy and their ability to form a healthy relationship with any entity that can be viewed as a power or authority greater than themselves.
Most children innately have some capacity for empathy which, with appropriate guidance, can be nourished and strengthened throughout their developmental years. But some children are lacking in their capacity for empathy, and helping them develop a sound conscience requires more ardent, consistent efforts on the part of caregivers to increase not only their awareness of the feelings, rights, and needs of others but also their willingness to respect those feelings, rights, and needs in their interactions with others. And some children, unfortunately, have severe empathy deficits. In those cases, if they are to cultivate any degree of adaptive conscience , such children need to come to appreciate at least the practical, social benefits to behaving as if they had a deep concern for the welfare of others.
Most children also have both the capacity and the willingness to recognize and demonstrate respect for powers greater than themselves, especially in the early years when they are inherently dependent upon their caretakers who can appear to them as nearly all-powerful forces with which to be contended. This capacity and willingness is essential to healthy conscience development. In many workshops over the years, I’ve repeated a little rhyming saying that gets to the heart of this important aspect of sound conscience formation: “Internalization of a societal prohibition is, ultimately, and act of submission.” That is, in order for a person to truly adopt and adhere to a societal norm, he or she must go beyond merely recognizing and respecting a higher power or authority and willingly subordinate his or her own wants, needs, desires, urges, impulses, etc. to that higher authority (and the values, standards, and rules advocated by that authority) for the greater good. It’s not enough to simply know what behaviors serve the greater good. A person’s conscience is sound only when he or she has internalized (i.e. taken to heart and made an integral part of his/herself) the values and standards of conduct that serve the social interest, which is what enables them to do the right thing even when no one else is watching.
Some individuals, especially individuals with narcissistic or aggressive traits in their personalities, have a greater than normal degree of difficulty forming a healthy conscience (for an in-depth examination of these personality types, see: Personality & Character Disorders Pt 6: Narcissists & Aggressives and chapters 2 and 3 of Character Disturbance). Those who have come to think so much of themselves (i.e. individuals with narcissistic traits ) that they barely recognize let alone manage to garner any respect for a “higher power” also tend to lack empathy for those they view as “inferior.” Sometimes, they even have a fair degree of disdain for those they see as beneath them and this prompt them to act in “entitled” and disregarding ways toward others. While they might not always set out to deliberately cause pain to others, they simply don’t care enough about the welfare of others and place too much importance on themselves and their own wishes to guard against exploiting, using or taking advantage of others. And the various personalities who are naturally inclined to conquer adversity, amass power, and dominate others (i.e. those with aggressive personality characteristics) also have big problems developing healthy empathy and a constructive relationship with any”higher power.” For them, paying any deference to or “submitting” in some way to any entity other than themselves is both innately repulsive and a sign of weakness. So, they resist acts of submission (even little ones) at every opportunity, which greatly impairs their ability to form a healthy conscience.
In the posts over the next two weeks, we’ll take a look at some altered and blended case histories that exemplify the kind of things that can go wrong in conscience formation for individuals with narcissistic or aggressive personality inclinations. We’ll also examine the kinds of strategies those rearing children with these characteristics can employ to increase the likelihood that such individuals will become better socialized (the same principles apply to older individuals as well, although it’s much harder for those principles to positively impact a person once they’re past their formative years). The stories should prompt significant discussion, and, as always, additional anecdotes from the readers should prove highly valuable.