Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and participants in other 12-step programs are well familiar with the term “hitting bottom.” That’s the term that describes when someone’s life has become so dysfunctional and unmanageable under the throes of a raging addiction that they’ve simply lost all ability to cope and have to admit personal defeat and “powerlessness.” And there is ample history to suggest that many individuals have found the hitting bottom experience (and subsequent surrendering or “turning over” of their lives and wills over to another governing force or “higher power”) the key to making significant turnarounds in their lives. This causes many to wonder whether disturbed and disordered characters might not also have the potential to hit an emotional bottom when their lives have become a shipwreck, and perhaps as a result, find the motivation to chart a different course for their lives.
In my book Character Disturbance (as well as in In Sheep’s Clothing) I outline how different folks who are mostly impaired in character are from those who are mostly “neurotic.” There are many dimensions on which these two groups differ. And one dimension on which they differ significantly is how they respond to adverse consequences in their lives (see also: Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Responses to Adverse Consequences).
As a rule, neurotics try so hard to do right and to effect positive outcomes that they become anxious and upset quite easily when the endeavors they’re involved in go badly. They are by nature hypersensitive to adverse consequences. And if that hypersensitivity weren’t stressful enough by itself, they frequently bring additional stress upon themselves by making internal attributions about the reasons things might have gone wrong. When a neurotic office worker doesn’t get the “Good job!” comment he craves from his supervisor, he might well beat himself up with self-criticism, questioning how he fell short or obsessing about what more he might do to eventually secure the approval he desires. When the neurotic therapist doesn’t see the positive change she hopes for in the members of her therapy group, she might well start worrying that she is a sub-standard counselor who needs to learn a lot more and try a lot harder. Neurotics want things go well and for everyone to be happy. And they take it hard whenever things go awry, all too readily blaming themselves for any failures. Because they have such a high level of social conscientiousness, neurotics often use their sensitivity and self-focus to propel themselves into action that might make almost any tenuous situation better. Adverse consequences often prompt the neurotic individual to consider small “course corrections” or changes they might make in their ways of doing things. They don’t completely alter their character, but they do modify their “style” a bit, trying to be a better person and perhaps becoming even more conscientious than they were before in the process.
By contrast, disordered characters are generally unfazed by adverse consequence. They have a characteristic imperturbability in their temperament that forms a significant part of their personality makeup and tend to remain relatively unnerved when it comes to dealing with adversity, especially when adverse circumstances are the direct result of their own behavior. So, when a judge reads the riot act to a three-time offender before sentencing, the criminal remains unflustered. To complicate matters, unlike neurotics who tend to blame themselves, disordered characters are prone to making external attributions whenever anything bad does happen. They are quick to see others and circumstances as the source of problems. So, if they’ve lost another job, had another marriage fall apart, or even gotten in trouble with the law, they take it all in stride, blame everyone and everything else, and find little reason not to keep on behaving the same way they’ve always behaved, despite where it’s gotten them. Some of the most disturbed characters even pride themselves on the notion that they cannot be “beaten” and might even intensify their dysfunctional “style” of social behavior with every negative consequence that comes along. They are both so comfortable with and married to their style of coping that they simply dig in their heels and try even harder in their same old ways to make things work (Some people would say this is the very definition of “insanity”). They remain undeterred in their style of coping, even in the face of adverse consequences.
For significantly disturbed characters to have a hitting bottom experience sufficient to prompt them to reconsider their approach to life, two things must happen: 1) The experience must be of such devastating intensity that the disturbed character’s typical tenacity of spirit is at least strongly shaken if not broken; and, 2) There must be so many aspects of the experience that point so singularly to the culpability of the disturbed character that it’s virtually impossible (despite likely attempts) for him or her to blame anyone or anything else for the misfortune. And in such a rare circumstance there are two potential outcomes: 1) the ego-insult or narcissistic injury can be so great and the person’s motivation (and willingness) to do the work of self-reconstruction is so minimal that he or she simply gives up on life, possibly even preferring to opt out as opposed to stomaching the distaste inherently held for contrition, remorse, and the work of reparation (see also: What Real Contrition Looks Like); or, 2) the person has the archetypal epiphany or “come to Jesus moment” where he or she faces the full truth about the true nature of problems and becomes “willing” for the first time (i.e. has the all-important change of heart) to both accept guidance and make essential course corrections. Many times, the guidance is provided by a faith system of some type. And how genuine their “conversion experience” is can only be demonstrated with ample and consistent behavioral evidence over a significant amount of time (psychopaths are notorious for claiming they have found God or religion and for outwardly appearing to have changed their stripes while instead having only become even more stealthy, astute, and cleverly manipulative predators). In The Judas Syndrome, I give examples of individuals who’ve either claimed (falsely) to turned their lives and wills over to the precepts of a faith system or sincerely embraced the principles advocated by some “higher power” that would make of them better persons.
Now I’ve written before (see, for example: Disturbed Characters: Can They Ever Really Change?) that some disturbed characters (especially those not severely disordered), can actually make significant changes in their typical modus operandi without having to hit an emotional bottom (especially if they’re exposed to the right kind of professional intervention). But for the most stubborn and prideful personalities, total defeat seems to be the only pathway to becoming a person of different and hopefully better character.