Therapy and the Face of Real Change

One of the main points I make in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing (I also discuss this issue from a somewhat different perspective in The Judas Syndrome), is that change – legitimate, genuine, potentially lasting change – always manifests itself in the here-and-now moment.  It’s not an empty promise to be better but a here-and-now decision to do differently.  And over the years, I’ve had the blessing and privilege to witness some of the most impaired characters make significant changes in their lives.  Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered many persons extremely resistant to change – even among those who vociferously protested that they were a different person.  This begets the question of how you know someone is really making changes, especially when they’re involved in the therapeutic process.

People working toward genuine change have a distinctive character about them and display some readily observable signs that they truly mean business.  Folks who are all talk and no action are also easy to spot, especially if you know what to look for.  Here’s an example based on a real case (with certain details altered to ensure anonymity).  It’s a portion of an interview I did with an individual who’d had repeated problems with the law and was facing incarceration for the first time:

Q:  Why are you here today?

A:  They told me if I get some counseling I’ll have a better shot at getting some justice.

Q:  And who is “they?”

A:  My lawyer.

Q:  Okay.  So, in what way do you think I might be able to help you?

A:  To tell you the truth, I don’t really need no help.  I seen someone before.  Lots of times.  Didn’t do no good, though.  But I got my act together now.  I ain’t gonna do those things that got me in so much trouble no more.

Q:  You’ve had therapy before?

A:  Yeh, I seen lots of doctors and everything, and my momma…, she put me in one of those places one time and the judge said they was gonna help me get over what they said was my depression and stuff.

Q:  Were you depressed?

A:  I was when I got there!

Q:  What had you done that your mom and the Judge thought you needed that kind of treatment?

A:  Man, they was makin’ it out like I was some kind of criminal or something.  I had missed a little school, but I was going to get me a job.  And they got me for havin’ some “weed” in my car, but I wasn’t gonna sell it like they said, and besides, who doesn’t sell a little weed or get a little high sometimes.

Q:  Were there other problems?

A:  Well, my momma says I pushed her down, but I didn’t really, she tripped.  And she was in my face, just like she does a lot.  I told her to back off but she wouldn’t.  And they’re calling it assault and battery.  But I’m tellin’ you, I’m a changed man now.  I even go to church sometimes and everything.  All this other stuff they’re saying about me is just bull^&*&^!

Q:  If I were to decide to work with you, you’d have to show me some degree of willingness to really change.

A:  But I am changed.  I already done told you that.

Q:  Saying you’ve changed is one thing.  Showing that it’s true is quite another.  And in just the few minutes you’ve been with me, whenever you had the opportunity to accept responsibility, instead you minimized the seriousness and criminality of your misbehavior, you rationalized and made excuses, and you blamed others for your situation.  And you made no attempt to stop yourself.  Instead, you did the very same things right here today that you’ve done for a long time and that got you to the point of facing the consequences you’re now facing.  So, from my standpoint, I’m not seeing that you have actually done much changing or that you’ve even given much attention to the task.  And if I were to take you on as a patient, my job would be to encourage and reward you for doing things very differently.  Your job would be to catch and correct yourself whenever you’re tempted to engage in any of the tactics you typically try and which I have outlined on this thinking errors and manipulation tactics worksheet right here.  And you can start by admitting that talk is cheap and that you haven’t really done all that much to change your ways of doing things.

A:  I guess ya got me there, doc.  What’s next?

Now, of course, this example only illustrates a start for potentially helpful therapeutic process.  And suffice it to say that not all my encounters with disturbed characters have been anywhere near as promising as this one was at the start.  Besides, even this case proved to be a very much up and down, backward and forward situation for quite some time.   But I provided the example to help illustrate two things:  1) what to look for in the here-and-now that tells you whether someone is really changing in any meaningful way; and, 2) the very different character any therapeutic encounter with a disturbed character must have (I’ve addressed two other similar issues in this regard in some prior articles – see, for example:  Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy and Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”).  The most important thing to remember is that it’s always about the behavior.  And once you know the specific behaviors to be mindful of, you’ll get a clearer picture in the moment about the status of someone’s character development.


27 thoughts on “Therapy and the Face of Real Change

  1. It’s funny (not haha) how transparent some of their tactics are, once you know… Liars begin by assuring you they are being honest, and yankers begin by assuring you they are coming from good will. Ha!

  2. And of course the people who have not changed one iota will start by assuring you they are a “changed man.” It’s all like some weird cheap magic performance, where the magician relies on our tendency to focus on the words, and not on the behavior. Now, why do we do that? Is that some compulsion we have not shaken since we acquired language? Baffling.

    1. No compulsion. Just simple energy economics. Which is easier: To assert you’re changed or to prove it with solid, consistent, behavioral evidence?
      And if a simple assertion will buy you the same degree of acceptance from your partner as would hard work, why not try it?

      1. Actually, I am baffled by us… why are we seduced so easily by cheap-talk, and so easily led away from watching the “hands of the magician” (behavior)?

        1. Again, simple energy economy. Which is easier: to accept in hope that things will be different because someone promises, or to really hold someone accountable and then do all that it takes to rebuild a life when they don’t prove worthy?

          1. Sigh. All too true.

            Still though, I wonder what a clever linguist would say about this… I remember trying hard to keep my focus on the magician’s hands (back when I still went to magic shows) and failing, getting lured away by the story. Hm…

  3. Here is some stuff I found around. Some scientists are looking at magicians’ tricks and brain shortcuts that allow them.

    And here’s a video that shows the pitfalls of our narrow attention.

    Change blindness: our attention is like a narrow beam, and while we pay close attention to the story, we are oblivious to other “real” details happening at the same time. There seem to be mental loopholes that makes such illusionism possible.

    The young man you quote gave up easily when caught out. More accomplished CA illusionists would not… they would repeat again and again their various “story tricks” of drawing our attention away from the real action.

    What do you think?

    1. The most astute manipulators either have an intuitive (or well-researched) grasp of the “normal brain’s” vulnerabilities or have such an understanding of and contempt for neurotic behavior that they are proud to be able to take advantage of the vulnerabilities neurosis begets.

      1. I am reflecting that some people take advantage of the ability of language (the story told) to create a veil, or camouflage, over the real story (the story enacted, embodied). We become entranced by the seductive words, abetted by the fact that accepting those words at their face value is easier than countering the behavior.

        Our brains love hearing a story. Is there a way to train ourselves to hear the story told by the behavior instead, or louder? I am just groping here, wondering.

        1. As I emphasize in Character Disturbance, we also most often simply listen to as opposed to for the things people say. That’s because we don’t automatically assume someone is gaming with us during the interaction. But we live in the age of rampant character impairment, which is why we need to listen for the clues that someone is running a con underneath all their flowery talk.

          1. One thing I’d like to say about listening, confronting, the magicians hands, etc……I know that after a while I just was too tired and overwhelmed to pay attention closely. It all just ran together, one incident after another to the point that I couldn’t remember what happened when and what he had said about what. What a nightmare. It’s like I was getting weaker and weaker and he was getting stronger and stronger, and meaner I might add.

          2. Yup, that’s how it went with me too. I was such a wreck I could not even remember conversations anymore. I was permanently anxious and depressed and shell shocked. And you know what, Puddle? Some call them emotional vampires for a reason…

          3. Vera, I used to watch this stupid show about vampires and they said that a vampire can not enter a non vampires home without being invited in. I think that is one of the things that makes my stomach turn in the aftermath of this nightmare…..I see clearly that where I was at in my life at the time I met him allowed him into my life. I practically dragged him through the door! So that makes me sick to my stomach but also shows me that there were some VERY important lessons for me to learn. I now see that due to my own issues and vulnerabilities I have to be vigilant and self protective. I have to make choices that are in my best interest and not leave that up to someone else. I have to insist on a good dinner with all the courses including desert and not settle for crumbs. I not only settled for crumbs in this situation, the crumbs were la laces with emotional poison.

  4. Vera and Puddle, your comments remind me of a book named Emotional Vampires by Albert Bernstein. It’s about mildly different kinds of personalities; if described alongside Character Disturbance, they are closer to egotistic personality type. Emotional vampires described in Bernstein’s book have unfulfilled, immature, often unconscious needs that drive their obnoxious, often harmful behavior. They aren’t consciously callous, but they can’t, so to speak, see their image in the mirror, having no ability to see the role their behavior plays in others’ distress. They are immature and have no idea their behavior is hurtful.

    Then again, not everyone is all that clear-cut and personality problems can cluster.

    1. This is one subject I must comment on. Yes, self-centered, “egotistic” personalities can suck the blood right out of you emotionally. But Bernstein makes the very same mistake as so many other professionals who are overly immersed and invested in traditional models have made over the years. While I will certainly grant that there are indeed SOME egotistic (narcissistic individuals dealing with unfulfilled, immature needs that cause them to unconsciously emotionally burden and drain others (that is, sometimes the framework of neurosis still applies to a personality type), in today’s day and age, this is an extraordinarily small minority. Most of the vampires out there these days are fully conscious and deliberate people users and abusers. Sometimes, their disregard for the impact on other of their behavior is “passive” as opposed to “active.” That is, while they might not set out to specifically injure, they simply don’t care enough about anyone else to devote any attention to others, others’ welfare, or the effect on others of their behavior. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know full well what they’re doing. And they “see” their image in the mirror quite clearly. They’re just are at odds with those who think they should be in any way troubled by and not totally enamored of what they see. I went to great lengths in Character Disturbance not only to explain the huge differences between problem personalities who are mostly “neurotic” (i.e., who have unconscious needs, fears, wants, unresolved issues, etc. driving their behavior) as opposed to those who are AWARE but don’t CARE enough (and outlined 7 personality types that in today’s age are far more character disturbed than they are “neurotic” along with explanations about what things really make them the way they are). I’m passionate about this because far too many people have locked themselves into destructive relationships and totally wasted their time in joint therapy (or pushing their partner into traditional therapy) because either bought into or already held some of these antiquated notions about why and how these folks do you in. I worry that I might have failed in my principal task if that is not crystal clear to someone reading my books, especially to someone trying to compare or reconcile Bernstein’s outlook to mine.

      1. A term emotional vampire can be applied to draining people regardless of whether they’re unconscious of it or conscious and uncaring. I have to apologize for what I said. What you worry about is not what I intended at all. On the contrary, when young, I’ve met many people, who I’ve seen use many of the tactics you detail in your books, so long before I ever found out about your books, I did have a hunch that some people just are cleverly underhanded. It always bothered me how some people just can misbehave so easily and find no problem in it and the explanation of underlying weakness(as in fear of being vulnerable) always rang a little false to me. So if anything, I was more than ready to accept the true nature of conscious manipulators the first time I read Character Disturbance.

        I thought of the book as a loose association from Vera and Puddle’s comments. Now that I look back, that was a poorly thought-out comment. Would you remove it, please?

        The end result of irresponsible behavior is the same: Someone gets hurt/victimized.

        1. Absolutely no need to apologize for anything at all. And I thought your comment was not only well-worded but important. I certainly don’t want to delete it. I only wanted to make the point (can you tell it’s my pet peeve???) that some of the traditional assumptions about the underpinnings of someone’s dysfunctional behavior can actually put people at a disadvantage when trying to understand and deal with the disturbed characters in their lives. There were a lot of truths and other good things in Bernstein’s book. And you reflect quite accurately the perspective he advanced about what makes egotists tick. I just happen to think not only that he and others who share that view are wrong but also that those notions, if accepted, actually help enable victimization, whether you simply buy into the notion and therefore try to stick it out in a relationship or you’re in therapy with someone who adopts the perspective and the dysfunctional character you’re with gets no better.

          The readers of the blog should get a lot of helpful information from your comment. I just hope they also appreciate my rant about perspective. And when I revise Character Disturbance (for a new edition in 2016), I’m going to be sure to spend a lot more time explaining these very issues and their critical importance to dealing with the phenomenon of our age. 🙂

          1. People, for whom the leap from antiquated view of underlying fear of vulnerability to more updated problems of moral character and social conscience(I’m not a psychologist, just have read a lot of books) is too big, can hopefully accept the following notion. The notion that if a relationship is harmful to your well-being and another party is too comfortable or stead fast in their ways, making yourself believe you can change them is folly. At best it’s overestimation of another person’s willingness despite contrary proof. Like you’ve said many times, proof in behavior, not words.

          2. Yes, and I would even go further and say that trying to change the other person is a form of manipulation also. I’ve heard a saying… people don’t so much resist change as they resist being changed…

          3. Great comment. And for those who have tried “manipulating” their character-disturbed relationship partners with the same tactics manipulators use (e.g., shaming, guilt-tripping) they only learn firsthand what I’ve been saying about the big differences between neurotics and disturbed characters. The tactics actually work on neurotics (i.e. succeed in keeping the neurotic person under some degree of control) whereas they simply don’t have the same impact on the impaired character.

          4. Please don’t apologize for your ‘pet peeve’ – those of us who have been enlightened by you now share it; and it can be very frustrating when you need other people to co-operate and ‘get with the program’ of dealing with this person.
            Although you’ve focused on the problem with therapists – I’ve even had this problem with a lawyer when I needed to fire a CA who had been doing serious emotional damage in the organization. Despite the investigator I called in finding no less than 31 ‘issues’ over a short period of time (where an ‘issue’ might well be much more than a single incident), and the CA retaliating to the disciplinary procedure by writing 8 pages of false/twisted allegations against me and my colleague and starting a lawsuit — my lawyer still said, ‘Nine times out ten people just want an apology, it’s not the money, they just want to feel acknowledged and heard…’
            I didn’t provide the apology!

        2. I found Bernstein’s book nearly useless. Any self-respecting vampirologist ought to know that *real” vampires know perfectly well what they are. 😀

          1. Have to update our vampirology then. 🙂

            I think it’s the same principle as with trying to control something you really have no control over: If you invest in someone, who’s steadfast in his harmful ways, you’re just going to feel drained.

            If someone does act out of some need, it may be easy to believe, like Dr Simon said when interviewed by Sarah Strudwick, that we can help them. In reality, it doesn’t change anything and the end result is the same or similar with many character and personality disorders: Another party gets victimized. I sound like a middleman here, but I think it bears repeating.

            People don’t change unless they admit they really are better off changing.

  5. Dr. Simon, I would have to say that the person I’m dealing with is more than an emotional vampire for sure. Every aspect of his life indicates that he would prefer to do as little as possible for himself and asume just enough responsibility to get by, the bare minimum and probably none if he could get away with it.
    This was not only reflected in our “relationship” but consistently throughout the rest of his train wreck of a life.
    As always, thank you for what you do.

  6. I am dealing with my sister in law who moved in my house. My therapist, as I am depressed and take medication for that said she had a character disorder. Unfortunately, I think there is more to it than that.

    She has some OCD and says she has ADD. I do believe she has PTSD because she was in an emotionally abusive marriage for 24 years. Her husband also used drugs and could not be counted on to support their family. She did eventually get divorced. He died about 4 or 5 years ago.

    She is an emotional vampire too and I am doing all I can to put a stop to her feeding on me. She is codependent on my husband and me. My husband has MS and works 40 hours a week.
    He has cognitive problems at work. My previous therapist said I was depressed for my husband. My husband is almost 65 and needs to work for us to stay in our home.

    We have serious financial issues and she is taking advantage of us that way too. She was in a remote area and had not had a decent job since 2009. She lived on food stamps and welfare from the LDS church, because she could only find part time work.

    I do believe that their is a guilt component that contributes to the character disorder that may have occurred in their childhood. My deceased mother in law, her mother was active in the LDS church and forced her to have 4 years of religious instruction before high school, I think.

    My husband does not remember most of his childhood as he was in a car accident about 1970 and had total amnesia for 3 days. The rest of his memory problems are due to the MS. He was diagnosed with MS in June 1997.

    I naturally assumed she would want to work 40 hours a week but she wants to do the least amount of work she can. She has job skills that would enable her to do something clerical, but she refuses to. In her previous jobs she mentioned to me, one lasting 3 years and another a temp summer job when she finished high school she had to work with mean and manipulative people. She also says she can not sit still long enough for that kind of a job or work in a cube.

    The list of things she says she will not do is endless… but if we force her to leave.. she will have to go back to an area that is very hot this summer and close to where her 3 codependent and screwed up kids are. Her youngest moves in with her and eats her food. She has not had enough money to feed him… he is built like a football player only less muscular and fatter. He is either 28 or 30 years old and can only support himself off and on. He also uses drugs and has friends that do.

    My husband and I had no idea how messed up she was emotionally. I can’t support her emotionally… I need to be alone in my house for 30 hours a week when my husband is gone between 7 am and 4:30 pm… this is critical to my sanity.
    I was alone for 30 minutes last Thursday for the first time in 33 days.

    She also told me she does not want to leave the house because she is trying not to spend money(she has $7000.00 from selling a house trailer…. and she also said she has agoraphobia.

    4 days before she moved in my husband’s car stopped working too. so since May 26 I have been without a car during the day most of the time.

    I do have the name of a place that does counseling on a sliding scale and I am going to check it out first, and then tell her. My husband and I both must insist she try therapy and if medication is mentioned she finds a way to pay for it.

    If I have to be in therapy and take medication to deal with my issues why can’t she? My current therapist said I was motivated and she is not. This whole disaster is causing me to have suicidal feelings off and on… I will not be guilted into trying to fix someone that will not admit her coping mechanisms are not working…

    Thanks for letting me vent. I am planning on buying the books about character disorder and manipulative people. I don’t think I can do much to help her… without feeling like she is an emotional vampire. Maybe the books will help me explain to my husband what we are up against.

    1. I’ll let some of the readers chime in here first with some suggestions. And after you’ve had a chance to read the books and I’ve had a chance to glance over some of the comments, if you still have questions, I’ll probably lend some of my own comments to the discussion.

      You also raise several issues here that I’ve addressed in other posts. I hope you not only read the books but also have a chance to review some of the other articles.

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