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.
20 thoughts on “Aggressors, Narcissists, Conscience, and Character”
Could part of this be, for anyone but especially someone raised in a highly dysfunctional family and possibly even being encouraged by a dysfunctional family member, a mater of really not “getting” what the majority of people in society “get” in regards to what is right and wrong? They may see others behaving differently towards people than they do and their family members do but they would default to the long familiar family rules of engagement no mater how off base they are in society.
One of the shows I watched yesterday demonstrated this when the father of a man who murdered a woman helped his son dispose of the body because he was his son and he would always help his son no matter what.
I’m pretty sure that Spathtardx’s mother and at least his one sister were in on something, at the very least they were aware of his pathological intentions. Sick
You mean Spathtardx didn’t even say anything to manipulate them to enable his depraved antics, but they helped him without him needing to do anything? Creepy how even family dynamics can develop for the worse over time and thus enable one’s harmful habits to stay strong.
J, I don’t know. It’s really speculation and a gut feeling. I think his sister KNEW and I think his mother “knows” what he is. He’s been in 4 unsuccessful marriages and has scape goated them like he has me I’m sure. I never heard one word of culpability out of his mouth,,,,,,none.
The way these people “handle” others is so complex and varied it makes my head spin.
It’s hard to say how much of what he is either one of them know but I do believe they “know”. I get a very very strong impression that there is a lot going on there in the way of covert, emotional incest at the very least.
At this point it’s hard to even guess or speculate because thinking back on EVERYthing, I don’t even know what if anything was real or what I thought it was.
That’s a great description, “covert emotional incest”. Creepy, depraved and vile. Perhaps it could be some rarer, but more subtle, complex, pervasive way of sleazy emotional seduction/manipulation. Perhaps that kind of creepy manipulation indeed exists.
J, I know for a fact that his mother enabled him to be the way he is…….I don’t know if she is entirely aware about what he is like behind her back, i.e. with the women who have the misfortune to get tangled up with him. I’m SURE he spins each and every involvement into a woe is Spathtardx picture. I remember her saying how weird one of his ex’s parents were and when I asked her for an example she told a story about how they didn’t even come to the hospital when the her and Spathtard’s baby was born. At the time I didn’t even think of why that might be but now i’m guessing that it was because the parents didn’t want to have anything to do with Spathtardx. He had married this girl once……they ended up divorced and then he snagged her again, got her pregnant with their 2nd child and I’m sure that her parents were not pleased!
Anyhow,,,,,the relationship with Spathtard and his mommy in disgusting. There were things I took notice of even before I thought he was a spath but as per usual in the relationshi*, I ignored, ignored, ignored because I couldn’t really grasp it or prove it.
One example though………I heard her call him “your highness” and he replied calling her “your duchess”. She also told me that Spathtard “can’t live by himself…..it destroys him”. It all makes me want to vomit as I live by myself,,,,,and it’s very much of a struggle because of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome issues and the fact that I’m in my mid 50’s in a very rural area. So much to do and I basically have to pay to get he;p for just about everything. AND on top of that, I’m racking up huge therapy bills as a result of the devastation this has left. ON SO MANY LEVELS!
Yeah……there was definitely something going on between mommy and baby spathtard. Not physical but covert emotional incest for sure. Disgusting.
Some things are disturbing and we justifiably wish they didn’t exist. The sociopath’s mother could be an example of how being stuck in denial takes a toll on self-respect.
J, indeed……she has played a part in crippling him. How could a mother not see how much damage it does to a boy, man, to enable his helplessness. Not that this is even realivant at this point but during the relationshi*, all I wanted was to walk through the rest of my life with him (his mask). I would have LOVED to have been his partner in life and love for the rest of my days or his,,,,,which ever came first. I wanted a partner thou….not a dependent. Someone who had my interests in his heart and I KNOW that if that would have been true, I would have known it and not felt so insecure, off balance, concerned, etc…..
One of the on line relationship gurus says just that……no matter what “ideal” qualities you may think you want in a man…..the one MOST important thing a woman HAS to feel is safe in her man’s love. she HAS to feel adored and not like she is a discardable option in his life. I honestly think that when a man really values and loves you for the RIGHT reasons, a woman knows and that is the only time you should give yourself to man……when you feel like that for him and KNOW that he feels that kind of love for you. Now I know. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. THAT was the missing piece for me…..I didn’t KNOW KNOW KNOW in my heart that he loved me, that he valued me enough to really strive for something lasting. I listened to the endless I love you Puddle’s and didn’t see him walking the talk…………in SO many ways.
When i think back on the whole relationshi*, it’s as if I was drunk or drugged. It seems so friggin simple to me now, so clear that I was nothing but a toy and a game to him. It was not that for me and to know in my heart how much I wanted to be with him, how much i wanted to believe he really did love me, how many times I berated myself because I felt guilty for not being able to feel safe with him……to know that I felt that and more for a “man” who was only yanking my chain, just because I was too naive to know that someone would actually DO that to ANYone, let alone someone they swore they loved and adored and said they wanted to spend the rest of their life with……
My heart just doesn’t seem like it will ever stop breaking. It feels like something is ripping it in half in the most slow, painful way possible. Torture.
I don’t know what it is I still feel for him……it can’t be love anymore because the person I loved was never even real.
Her denial was self serving J. She has him where she wants him…..with her. I doubt she has spent one minute thinking about what will happen to him when she is gone. She has longevity on her side though from what I remember about her family. who knows…..maybe his sisters will step in if she kicks off….
Dr. Simon, what are your thoughts about someone who, to the best of their ability, cares about his immediate family yet plays and toys with others for their own gain and or amusement?
It’s part and parcel of narcissism to “care for” and even sometimes idolize and worship one’s own creation (i.e. family) or one’s reflection (as some narcissists view their children, especially if they share similar traits), but what appears as the capacity to care is really just an extension of self-love, so inevitably problems surface, especially when the “reflection” becomes negative in some way. Perhaps I’ll include an example in the vignettes I’ll be presenting in the next two posts. I’ll search the case histories.
My question really had more to do with……….Say the character disturbed person treats his mother fairly well,,,,not meanly but not exactly with respect either, but for argument’s sake, Let’s say this person is good to their parent(s). I just wonder about someone who could be good to their parent(s) yet treat a woman like a toy, game or worse. It doesn’t make sense. My guess is that although fairly, but not completely, well disguised……he really didn’t respect or “love” or care about his mother or anyone else for that matter, as much as he would like to have others believe he did.
Would a 46 year old man play loud rock and roll music in their elderly mother’s basement when basically everything can be heard upstairs without any effort?
My 3 articles on psychopathy/sociopathy and the capacity of folks with these traits to compartmentalize empathy might help you process this. At least I think that’s the issue you might be alluding to here.
Thank you Dr. Simon for the comment. Yes…….I’m thinking that in the case of my exspath, the caring for his family members had more to do with caring about they took care (enabled ) him. I made a comment to his mother one time about their being two sides to every story and that I didn’t think she knew mine. I said, “he can be very harsh and hurtful to me”. She said……”I’ve only seen him that way a couple of times”.
I thought that was an interesting reply although the exchange was very vague. My guess is that he has her trained and wrapped around his finger in a certain way. Don’t rock the boat, or expect anything from me other than what I am ok with, and we will get along just fine….. Reminder, this is a 48 year old “man” living in his mother’s basement.
Heh! You stab my back, I’ll stab yours!
I was going to post here requesting that Dr. Simon elaborate on what he means by “higher authority” when it comes to dealing with disturbed characters. I was curious partly because my disturbed ex loved to martial her own “higher authorities” in her efforts to maintain dominance. Wisely, I delved into “Character Disturbance” today and discovered that the matter is well fleshed-out starting on page 199 and continuing for several pages. I share relevant quotes from those pages:
“[C]onfront his truth distortions and responsibility-resistance tactics.”
“How they feel is not nearly as important as how they think and act.” I agree: My impression of my ex is that her feelings were EVERYTHING. Others’ feelings did not exist for her at a visceral level. Typically her feelings usurped reality. If it did not suit her to believe that she forgot to pick me up from work yesterday, then that event never happened. So, it seems to me that such disturbed characters need to be pulled out of the whirlpool of their feelings and confronted with reality (including the reality of other people’s feelings).
Evidence of progress is when “changes occur at the very moment those problem patterns appear, and you confront or challenge them about this.” I’ll be watching for this in my daughter.
“Most disturbed characters constantly jockey for a position of advantage in all their encounters.” (Wow. I can attest to that.) My ex would not hesitate to exploit her own “higher authorities” to re-establish dominance. E.g.:
*”All my friends think you are the one who is messed up.”
*”The therapist told me privately that you are just depressed.”
*”I spoke to the pastor and she said…”
*Then there are the minutia of rules and expectations about how the house should function; endless opportunities to criticize and find fault.
“Endorse and enforce values, principles, and standards.”
And thank you Dr. Simon for this one: “Confronting in a firm and unwavering way, even in the face of a barrage of tactics from the disturbed character is a true art.” Thank God, someone understands how difficult this is!
There is more, but you’ll have to read…
THIS IS ALL VERY HELPFUL IN HELPING ME WORK WITH MY DAUGHTER!!! THANKS.
Chris, I was accused of being critical of the Sapthx, of making him feel like he couldn’t do anything right……his words, ” I couldn’t cut the grass right, I couldn’t do the dishes right, I couldn’t f you right……”. Except for the last one which is a whole HUGE topic in and of it’s self…….the first two go back to individual incidents where I made a request of him or asked a question about why he did what he did, the way he did it. HUGE exaggerations on his part. But basically, it was my home and I didn’t think it was unreasonable for him to live in my home and respect my values and “”rules””. I have a brain “disorder” and ADHD and I do need things to be a certain way in my environment for me to function to the best of my ability. I didn’t tell him to clean his car or how to cut his mother’s grass or anything like that…..his business…. But at my home I think that anyone who gave a carp about you would WANT to honor your home and space. I know that when I’m in someone elses space I try to make my presence as easy for them as possible and feel obligated to contribute in what ever way i can. HE however seemed to operate as though he was doing me a favor by being there and that I shouldn’t expect anything. I never once had him say…..You know what Puddle? I know you are carrying a larger load in this relationship than I am and I hope someday it will be different….that is my goal….but for now I just want you to know that I appreciate that we have your place to be together and I’ll do what ever I can to contribute.
I thought he just didn’t get it but now I’m almost sure it was all part of the friggin game. Disgusting low life.
At first, one tries to be fair with these people and give them the benefit of the doubt. But over time it becomes clear that we are carrying much more than our share of the burden and getting far less out than we put into the relationship. Too bad that it sometimes takes awhile to figure that out! I sympathize, Puddle.
Perhaps one way old psychological misunderstanding have persisted is because the word ‘character’ has at one point been understood in a totally different way.
Chris,,,,,,the thing is that I certainly am far from perfect which had everything to do with my confusion! I did things wrong but I KNOW i never had ANy intention of hurting him or destroying him and it most certainly was not a game to me, especially in the second phase of the whole mess. At that point I had committed myself to him and us. I did so not knowing it would be my complete undoing. During that phase I did break up with him a couple times but never even came close to wanting to break up……….just too drained to continue. too confused. but I never wanted it to be over and in spite of EVERYthing I STILL long for him (who?…..Who is it I even long for??!).
If I had the ability to just observe who he REALLY is…..like a fly on the wall, I think I would be able to flush it right down the toilet but I don’t have that ability. If I did, I’m sure that what I would see would a) be a VERY different person than he tried to make me think he was and b) make me absolutely sick to my stomach. Thanks for your sympathy Chris……you have mine as well.
Dr Simon, please let me give you some suggestions concerning this book you’re writing:
*Recalling how we’ve talked about bullying, mentioning Bully in Sight and stopbullying.gov, I ask you this: Are you going to include any bits on how bullying can affect a bully’s character development? What about how it can create dysfunctional patterns of tacit approval by cowardice in bystanders? How about how bullying can, unhalted, create a climate fostering character dysfunction, “do-what’s-easy” kinds of unspoken rules, victimization and denial, burying head in the sand, not seeing anything?
*What about general factors enabling, propagating and reinforcing abuse of power in general?
*How is it possible to detect, halt and prevent abuse of power?