Socialization is a Process

Having given literally hundreds of workshops on the topic of character disturbance, my audiences (helping professionals and lay persons alike) always seem to want to know how the various disturbed characters came to be the way they are and what can be done to help them change. I get similar questions from readers of my writings and blog articles as well.

You can boil down many of the underlying assumptions of traditional schools of psychological thought about how people become disturbed and how you help them heal in this way: People are inherently good and geared toward health. They become unhealthy because bad or “traumatic” things happen to them. They develop fears and insecurities as a result of the trauma they experience and learn to cope in less than optimal ways. With unconditional positive regard, empathy, and support, they can heal their wounds, overcome their fears, and become naturally inclined once again to lead healthy, loving, compassionate lives.

Some schools of philosophical and religious thought adopt an opposing view: Man is basically a “fallen” or evil creature, inherently defective. Without sufficient guidance from a higher power, and left to his own devices, man will naturally tend to descend into all types of decadence, indecency and depravity. His greatest need is to be “saved,” especially from himself.

There is also the “nature vs. nurture” argument. For a long time, behavioral scientists argued that we’d all be the same were it not for the fact that we are subjected to very different environmental influences and contingencies. But these days there is plenty of evidence that certain behavioral tendencies are strongly influenced by genetic, temperamental, and other constitutional factors.

As is almost always the case, it appears the truth about human nature lies somewhere in the middle of the various extremes expressed above. Man is neither inherently good nor evil. And he is neither at the mercy of his genes and biochemistry nor is he a mere robot, fated to behave solely as his environment has programmed him to act. He is also not inherently defective. And although he’s basically an animal endowed by nature with some very primitive instincts, he has the remarkable capacity to learn and grow in awareness, which makes it possible for him to become ever so much more than a mere animal. That’s what the processes of socialization and character development are all about. And it’s a difficult, painful, complex, and generally life-long process.

In my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon], I define the process of character development this way:

Character-building is the lifelong process by which we instill self-discipline and develop the capacities to live responsibly among others, to do productive work, and above all, to love. …[And] loving is not a feeling, an art, or a state of mind. It’s a behavior, and precisely the behavior to which the two Great Commandments exhort us to commit ourselves.

Similarly, I define a philosophy for responsible living:

Even though a person might begin life as a prisoner of the natural endowments he was given and the circumstances under which he was raised, he cannot remain a “victim” of his environment forever. Eventually, every person must come to terms with him or herself. To know oneself, to fairly judge one’s strengths and weaknesses, and to attain true mastery over one’s most basic instincts and inclinations are among life’s greatest challenges. But ultimately, anyone’s rise to a life of integrity and merit can only come as the result of a full self-awakening. A person must come to know himself as well as others without deceit or denial. He must honestly face and reckon with all aspects of his character. Only then can he freely take on the burden of disciplining himself for the sake of himself as well as for the sake of others. It is the free choice to take up this burden or “cross” that defines love. And it is the willingness and commitment of a person to carry this cross even to death that opens the door to a higher plane of existence.

In my forthcoming book, Disturbances of Character, I make the point that “ours is an extremely interconnected and interdependent world,” and as such the need for people of sound character could not possibly be greater. I also note that “my personal mission for the last several years has been to call attention to the significant social problem (of character disturbance) and to inspire people to address and overcome it.” And in one chapter of the book, for the first time I offer some core principles for successfully guiding people (especially children) through the process of socialization and character development. I’ve already posted one article on one of the “ten commandments of character” [See: The Ten Commandments of Character] I discuss in my new book.  I’ll be posting some articles on other of these “commandments” in upcoming posts and hope they will spur a robust and fruitful discussion.

4 thoughts on “Socialization is a Process

  1. I was fascinated by your account of the historical shift from seeing individuals as having some neurotic condition in Freud’s time to where we are now with character disorders, in the present school of psychological discussion. I would love to know what other psychologist are writing about that shift.

    I felt in Sheep’s Clothing that you hit a home run with your references to society’s increasing presence of individuals with problem characters. I worry that our society is so far gone in this direction now that it will take a small miracle for your ideas to take hold. Everywhere we look in politics, sports, celebrity and corporate life, individuals that most might just chalk up to “low or poor character” ruin the lives of those around them by decisions and actions large and small that have accumulative affect. Those behaviors are become the new normal. Even worse, in some cases the media actually reward such behavior…and I’m not talking about all the condoning that goes on.

    The new movie The Social Network tells the intriguing story of several young Harvard students who formulate, collectively and individually, the ideas that will later lead Zuckerberg to create Facebook. And while I have not seen the movie yet, I wager that the ethical complaints by his fellows against him may show some indications of character disorder. I really look forward to your new book.

  2. Dr. Simon, this post of yours reflects the way I have matured in my thinking about covert aggressors thanks to you.

    Your post began with the observation that everyone in your seminars wants to know how character disordered people came to be as they are. But you end the post with a philosophy for responsible living: honestly reckoning with all of the aspects of our own character and overcoming our deficiencies.

    I struggled with covert aggressors for years throughout my life, putting all my energy into the wrong thing: thinking about them, trying to understand them, trying to change them. What changed my life for the better was coming to terms with MYSELF. A self-awakening. I had character weaknesses that made me a target for covert aggressors and made me vulnerable to their manipulative tactics.

    Nature or nurture – regardless, character building is a lifelong process and I am determined not to be a victim of either genetics or my social environment. The thing I have power over is ME.

    Elsewhere you speak of how character disordered people think so differently from me. I don’t need to know this for the purpose of explaining their behavior or blaming them for having “bad” character. What is more useful to my life is acknowledging that I had a character defect in being unable to see how others operated with different principles from me.

    That’s taking responsibility.

    That paragraph above on the philosophy for responsible living – I have read that several times over. Both its title and the content could not be more elegant. I cannot add a word to it nor subtract one. What I can say is how empowering this insight has been for me in taking command of my life.

    I entered into a google search what was going on in my life. Your book “In Sheep’s Clothing” came up at the top of the list. Yes, it explained the behavior of covert aggressors – but the key insight was identifying and taking responsibility for my own character defects.

    Thank you. It’s a higher plane of existence.

  3. Thank you so much for your comments, Robert, and for your endorsement of my work. It took me years of clinical experience and research to validate the principles I espouse but I’m always the most encouraged and validated when I get feedback such as yours.

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