Insight, Neurosis, and Character Disturbance

Disturbed and disordered characters are very different from the average neurotic person, especially with respect to their level of awareness about the nature of problems.   Most of the time, neurotics experience distress that stems from feelings and emotional conflicts that are intense and unresolved, yet for the most part, long-repressed and therefore, unconscious. For example, a woman might be in a funk for days without realizing that her despondent mood had something to do with the fact that it was getting close to the “anniversary” of her mother’s death.  She might not immediately make the connection that her feelings of unresolved grief and loss are at the root of the problem.  Or a man suffering with an ulcer might have grown so accustomed to his obsessive worry about his job that he’s no longer aware of it.  He might even be completely oblivious to the fact that his deep-rooted mistrust of authority figures (which plays out in his relationship with his boss), based upon his experience with his abusive father, is fueling the churning in his stomach.  Neurotics are often in considerable emotional turmoil, but the deeper root of their distress and sometimes even the very nature of the emotions they’re experiencing are often unknown to them.  That’s why traditional supportive and insight-oriented psychotherapy is tailor made for helping neurotics deal with their issues.  Once the therapist sets an atmosphere in which emotions locked out of awareness can resurface, the relevant issues can be worked through.

The problems of disturbed and disordered characters experience are very different in character.  For one thing, the “symptoms” of their dysfunction don’t cause them too much pain at all.  Rather, they cause pain and hardship for those around them.  That’s why instead of seeking help, they’re often pressured into getting it.  And although the troublesome behaviors they display might be so ingrained that they occur fairly “automatically,” that doesn’t mean the disturbed character isn’t fully conscious of them or the impact they have on others.  Disturbed characters are, for the most part, very much aware.  Most of the time, they’ve heard a thousand times and from many sources just what attitudes they hold and behaviors they display are a problem for others.   So they certainly don’t need a therapist or anyone else for that matter to help them “see” the error of their ways.  They know their ways inside-out.  And because so much of the time these ways get them the things they want, they are easily reinforced in their behavior patterns.  So, as I have said many times, they already “see” but simply “disagree” in their hearts with the ways of thinking and standards of conduct others want them to adopt.

Traditionally-minded therapists have a very difficult time understanding the whole concept of the disturbed character’s awareness.  In my classical training, I was taught never to ask a client “why” they did something because it would likely “throw them on the defensive” and they would be “afraid” to disclose.  Besides, they were supposed to be in the dark about the real underlying reasons for their behavior, anyway.  So, even though I was very interested in their motives, in my early work I did not ask them directly. A fair amount of the time, when I did broach motivation issues, they would reply with something like: “To tell you the truth, doctor, I really don’t know,” or “That’s what I’m in therapy to find out.” This would reinforce in me what I’d always been taught: that our primary therapy task would be to build a trusting relationship and then carefully uncover the unconscious underpinnings of their disturbing conduct.  Eventually they would come to “see” the problems with their behavior and work through their “issues.”

What a surprise it was to learn that such an approach was a total waste of time and that the disturbed and disordered characters I was working with were, in fact, keenly aware of their problematic thinking and behavior, despite the fact that they might use the manipulation and impression-management tactics of “playing dumb,” “feigning innocence,” or “feigning ignorance” to cast things otherwise.  And eventually I came to believe (as have several colleagues and researchers working in this area) that most of the time, when a disturbed character says “I don’t know” they really mean:

  • “I’ve never really think about it that much.”
  • “I don’t want to think about it.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about it now.”
  • “I know very well why I did it, but I certainly don’t want you to know because that would put you in a position of equal advantage with me — having my number, so to speak — and I won’t be able to manipulate you as easily or manage your impression of my character.”
  • “I don’t want to disclose because I want you to buy into the notion that I’m basically a person of good character who made an unwitting mistake, oblivious about the harm I caused others — i.e., my intentions were benign and I am willing to increase my awareness with your guidance.”

So, “I don’t know” can mean any of the above and a whole host of other things. But in the case of the disturbed character, it never, ever truly means “I don’t know.” And when I politely but firmly stopped accepting “I don’t know” for an answer , I was astonished at how easily I began to get more straightforward answers that actually made sense. Most importantly, the games of impression management character-impaired clients tried to engage me in diminished dramatically. I also became fairly dramatically aware of how expert disturbed and disordered characters generally are on the subject of neurosis as well as the mindsets of many mental health professionals. They know how neurotics think, the attitudes they hold, and the naiveties that make them vulnerable to manipulation. They’re also familiar enough with the tenets of traditional psychology to know how to manipulate and impression-manage even a seasoned professional.

Therapy with disturbed characters quickly became a very different enterprise than that for which I was trained.  No longer did I waste time and energy trying to get them to “see” what they already knew quite well.  Rather, I began benignly but firmly confronting them on the destructive character of their typical modus operandi and encouraging them to try out alternatives and rewarding them for the willingness to do so on occasion.  Naturally, some of these characters were too severely disturbed and too invested in their preferred way of doing things to consider changing anything at all.  They did not stick around very long.  But there was nothing lost there, and many of these same individuals came back later when their manipulations and strategies had ceased to work well and they realized they could use some guidance.  And some of the lesser-disturbed characters were actually happy to learn that someone else “got it” with respect to the patterns that cause problems throughout their lives.  They used worksheets developed from my book In Sheep’s Clothing to better label heir thinking errors and tactics re-programming their life scripts and to begin the process of changing their life scripts.

In Character Disturbance, I outline many of the other key differences that differentiate neurotics from disturbed and disordered characters.  And in the coming weeks I’ll be discussing these differences in greater depth, using examples from real life situations and cases.

12 thoughts on “Insight, Neurosis, and Character Disturbance

  1. Excellent post. I searched for a very long time to find out why me and my husband were not getting along. Now that I know why I am happy to focus on something I can do a lot about, improving my state and helping our children be the best they can be. I still care care for my husband this condition has left our relationship shattered beyond repair.

  2. Dr Simon,

    With our aging population, there is an increased demand for caretakers. If the caretaker has a “disturbed character”, it will be awfully hard for the elderly person to protect himself. I was hoping you can raise awareness on this issue.
    Some of the most “disturbed characters” can have the most “loving personalities”.

      1. Thank you so much.

        With our mobile society, family may not be close by to protect the elderly. When family does find out, it is too late and much damage has occurred.

  3. Drawing from Susan’s comment and one of the five important rules to keep in mind(learn to access other people’s character), what all kinds of ways are there to get a glimpse into another person’s character?

    1. “Character Disturbance” was written in large part to elaborate on the the character assessment material offered in “In Sheep’s Clothing.” By better understanding the various personality types – especially the behavioral and attitudinal features that define them – and where each individual likely falls on the dimension of character disturbance vs. neurosis, you can become a pretty good judge of character and save yourself a lot of future heartache.

  4. This was a very good article. I work as a mental health therapist with children and teens and have recently begun working with some young adults. The notion of “Character Disorder” or diagnosis is frowned on in teen populations but clearly, many teens and young adults have character traits that are very disturbing. Its as if our culture has valued the worst of human behavior, or simply ignored it in adolescence and during the tween years. The end product for many children and youth (especially the disadvantaged and traumatized), is that the cultural “expression” of what it means to belong and have a healthy sense of self ie clothing, beauty, wealth, acting “bad-ass”, especially ” being a celebrity” -has become more important than working towards a reality of self and living-being authentic. Connecting and getting through to these kids is very difficult, once they are teens. I look forward to reading your book.

    1. That desire to seem more “shining” than others is so familiar for me. In senior high, I so liked to demonstrate my brightness(when in reality I was lazy and only studied a bit here and there). I did like the feeling of being noticed that way during a psychology class. Sure, we do need to get our ideas across, but that desire to be noticed can really go to your head, if you’re not careful.

      While my father advised me to focus more on studying, because that’s what counts, I would be too busy being all bummed-out about how I wasn’t one of those “popular ones”(never mind some of them weren’t even all that hard-working either(although some were) and they were popular, because they didn’t spend time brooding about crappy days) and how “nothing I learned would be worth anything if I weren’t noticed”. Good thing I was excellent on some subjects and did well enough on others so my diploma wasn’t littered with poor grades. While my self-esteem at the time wasn’t the highest, it definitely wasn’t nearly as poor as I let my parents believe. I used “poor self-esteem” as an excuse for poor performance, neglecting homework, procrastrination and misusing my time for entertainment when I should have studied more for exams. While they weren’t completely convinced and did mention my tendency to use senseless amounts of time at computer, they rarely put nay penalties(at least any that stuck).

      They’d been a lot firmer in setting limits when I was a child.

      What would we call a phenomena where a child growing up with limits, but also with not a very strong self-esteem, hears of peers living with looser limits and even mocking him for adhering to set limits?

      1. Great comments, here. I chimed in a bit on Vera’s response. But I’m also fashioning a new series expanding on the “ten commandments” of character development” that will touch on many of these things and I will welcome comments on the cultural and other environmental factors that impact this process.

  5. Character flaws don’t necessarily manifest as immoral or criminal acts as read between the lines here. Sometimes it’s simply about being immature, irresponsible or haltlose(at least seen it classified as a personality disorder on wikipedia, I don’t think it’s official).

    Dr. Simon says in character disturbance that disturbed characters are simply willing to roll over others if it helps get nearer their goals, while sadists get a thrilling sensation of power and superiority from demeaning other people per se.

    Some lesser-disturbed characters, I’ve understood, can go about getting what they want as quickly as possible without even thinking of other people at all. Perhaps they notice afterwards and their emotional response is at best ‘Oh, nasty I guess’ and there may or may not a rationale of some kind. Perhaps they don’t even think of it as all, so self-absorbed they are. All the same no shame or guilt, at least sufficient. Closer to egotistic personality type than actively aggressive types.

    Also, while some books(like Tim Field’s Bully in Sight and Patricia Evans’ Controlling people) state that character- and personality-disturbed people engage in reprehensible behavior with little need for any pushing out of inadequacy, I still don’t think they’re falling into the same trap as lots of popular psychology assuming it’s all out of deep-seated. chronic low self-esteem. Having read Character Disturbance, I get the sense this so-called inadequacy stems from lack of self-RESPECT, for not having accomplished and not having any drive towards anything other than their own selfish desires. What enables them to release that pent-up tension and psychological aggression is the belief it’s okay to do so. If they were like us closer to the ‘neurotic’ end, they would voluntarily seek help. Neither of these books tries to sugarcoat bullying or being controlling towards other people, even when describing their mindsets.

    So, even if someone did have genuinely low self-esteem, it doesn’t change anything if they still believe their abusive actions are okay.

  6. Disturbed characters act from erroneous thinking, attitudes and beliefs.

    What about neurotics or primarily neurotic people? They are the ones primarily suffering from deep-seated feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem and anxiety as well as hang-ups and fears. Can we see the matter as them acting from neurotic beliefs and thinking?

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