What Were They Thinking? – Pt. 2

One of the central tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is that there is an inextricable relationship between a person’s core beliefs, the attitudes those beliefs have engendered, and the ways the person’s attitudes prompt him or her to to behave in various situations. Each element of the triad of thinking patterns-attitudes-behaviors generally has a reinforcing effect on the others and contributes greatly to an individual’s personality or “style” of relating to others.

Persons with disturbed characters don’t act the way most of us do largely because they don’t think the way we do. They don’t hold the same values, harbor the same attitudes, or share the same core beliefs. Their way of thinking is often marked by a distorted perception of reality and a perverted sense of social responsibility. Their ways of thinking are always reflected in the ways they act. To a much lesser extent, their ways of thinking might be discernible from the things they say. Sometimes they believe the things they say with genuine conviction and with total obliviousness to the ways that most other people think about similar things. Other times, they might have started out only half-heartedly believing the lies they told themselves about the reality of situations, but after lying so often they began to believe their distorted perspectives. Sometimes, however, they’re very keenly aware of how most people would tend to think, but in their innate combativeness they resist submitting themselves to the perspective others want them to adopt and instead try to manipulate others into buying into their distorted point of view.  

For example, an habitual wife beater might very well know how society at large feels about violence toward women by abusive spouses. Nonetheless, they might try to justify their behavior by constantly complaining that most women are “bitches” and rightfully “have it coming” when they “disrespect” their husbands. This type of disturbed character might very well know how most people would look at the attitudes he harbors. Nonetheless, such a person might do all he could to convince another person to adopt this point of view — not so much because he seeks validation, but because if he can get someone else to at least agree with some part of his assertions, he can cast himself in a slightly more favorable light. Others then would see him as perhaps a misguided soul who simply “doesn’t get it” with respect to how to view women, as opposed to a person who “gets it” just fine but vehemently resists adopting this societal standard and wants to justify himself by convincing others to see things at least somewhat his way.

Sometimes disturbed characters will advance points of view that even they don’t really believe but which they want you to believe that they believe purely for the purpose of manipulation and impression management. For example, I’ve encountered many child molesters who tried to advance the notion that their inappropriate touching of their victim was not motivated by aberrant sexual desire but rather by a foolish or misguided attempt to “teach” the child about sexual behavior. This kind of thing always puts me in the position of having to ask myself: “Do they really believe what they’re saying?” What I learned is that most of the time, they did not believe what they were trying to assert. But they hoped that I would think that they did in fact believe what they were purporting to believe so that I would ascribe neither the appropriate degree of malevolence nor the correct motivation (e.g., sexual interest in a child) for their behavior. I might, for example, see them as an under-educated, poorly guided soul who made a stupid mistake instead of a predatory pedophile or a heartless psychopath.

In the upcoming series of posts, I’ll describe different types of distorted thinking patterns displayed by some of the most severely disturbed characters, beginning with one I call Egocentric Thinking.

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