Character Disturbance and the Art of Confrontation

I get dozens of emails every year from folks asking how to effectively confront disturbed characters about their behavior.  And it’s not uncommon for folks to express grave reservations about confronting at all.  Sometimes they fear an unhealthy “defensive” or coping response on the part of the person confronted, or possibly even a vindictive or destructive “retaliatory” response.   But even though I have sometimes been guilty of failing to heed my own guidelines, I know from years of experience that there are some general, helpful rules that can really assist a person in the “art” of benign but powerful confrontation.

Something needs to be made clear from the outset.  There is nothing inherently provocative or detrimental about confrontation.  True, one can spark conflict by engaging in aggressive, hostile, confrontation.  But the essence of confrontation lies in meeting or addressing an issue or problem head-on as opposed to dancing all around it.  And we expect nothing less than this kind of laser-beam type focus when we’re confronting social problems like poverty and injustice.  Confrontation, done well, ensures that the spotlight falls where its light needs to shine the most:  directly on a behavior of concern.

Now how one goes about confronting the issues in a dysfunctional relationship is another matter entirely.  When it comes to dealing with disturbed characters, truly artful confrontation is a must.  So, for the sake of both clarity and simplicity, I’d like to outline the three most important rules:

  • Be very sure of the need and your motivation to confront.  Many times, people have it in their heads that it’s their responsibility to point out to the disturbed character in their life what that person is doing wrong so they will “see the light” and then modify their behavior.  This, of course, assumes that the person doesn’t already know what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it, and will somehow be motivated to take a different course if someone just points things out to them.  But disturbed characters are usually well-aware.  What they need – and more importantly, what you need to empower yourself – are firmly established limits on behavior.  And it’s simply not necessary to “red flag” the behavior you want to target, limit, or consequent.  To illustrate this point, I  might use the example that many introductory psychology students exploring the realms of behavior theory might be familiar with.  A class of students asks one student to leave the classroom and remain in the hallway while the others decide upon a special task.  The class decides that the secret target “task” will be to have the student, upon re-entering the classroom, place their foot in a trash can at the front of the room.  The only clues they will offer the guinea pig in this experiment about what is expected will be to clap (more loudly or softly) as the person tries out various behaviors in an attempt to figure out what the class wants him or her to do.  Then the person enters the classroom.  As they move around from location to location, clapping ensues in various degrees of intensity and frequency, getting louder and/or more frequent as the person moves nearer the trash can.  It becomes even more pronounced as the person experiments with various types of activities near and about the trash can, eventually erupting into a roar of approval when the person tests out placing a leg in the can.  No one had to tell this person what to do or to spell out the behavior that was expected.  As those versed in behavior theory know, behavior is influenced by its consequences.  Anyone can “get it” with respect to what is expected, when the expectations are made clear and consequences (in the form of recognition or reward or withdrawal of recognition or reward) are put into place (this is called shaping behavior).  So, the most important thing to remember is that the most effective way to target a behavior is to make sure the expectations, limits, and consequences are clear.  Besides, if you’re dealing with someone who simply refuses to modify their behavior despite clear limits, expectations, and consequences, you’re probably in a situation you’re best getting miles away from as opposed to wasting time and energy “confronting” the person and their behavior all the time.
  • When you do confront, take all the emotion out of it.  As I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, it’s easy for focus to be lost when attention is diverted to one’s emotional responses – or anything else for that matter.  So you have to do your best to remain calm, cool, and collected.  Besides, it’s easier to think clearly when you’re not worked up.  The ideal situation is when there is absolutely nothing except the behavior in question that anyone can point to as the issue that needs attention.  It needs to be clear:  it’s not about me as a person and it’s not about you as a person;  it’s not about my feelings or your feelings; it’s about a particular behavior, purely and simply.
  • Don’t wait.  When a problem behavior occurs, address it quickly.  Behavior often occurs in “chains,” and disturbed characters frequently exhibit destructive escalations of their behavior when those chains progress in an uninterrupted fashion.  The time to walk out of the room is when the first verbal character assault is hurled in response to your addressing of a problem.   Things can get ever so much more risky if you allow yourself to think you can simply wait until the insults get “bad enough” that you simply have to do something in response.  If you really want the spotlight to shine on a behavior, respond to it the very moment it first occurs.  And if you don’t want things to escalate, you’ll establish a track record of responding reliably and quickly to a problem behavior.

Several of the blog readers have rightly pointed out the risks always involved in confrontation.  Aggressive personalities and other disturbed characters do not take “no” easily for an answer and there is almost always a price to pay for enforcing a limit.  And in the more problematic situations, the most dangerous time is when the limits are most clearly defined and enforced.  That’s another reason why it’s so important to address behavior issues early on and to enter relationships with a focus from the beginning on empowering oneself as educating and improving the behavior of the other person.

29 thoughts on “Character Disturbance and the Art of Confrontation

  1. Great advice, but it sounds exhausting. Most disturbed characters I know throw out a lot of bad behavior on a pretty regular basis, so to be around them is to “empower” yourself ad nauseum. The older I get, the more I think the other sane response to these people is don’t touch them with a barge pole. Even if you’re related to them.

    What’s the up side? Implicit in “don’t expect to enlighten them” is the fact that how their behavior distresses you is not enough motivation for them to change it. It doesn’t hurt them to hurt you. They aren’t nice neurotics who will fall all over themselves for having given offense. They just can’t be that connected to you in the first place to behave this way, (with a lack of empathy), so why not face it?

    Or is it more a verbal self defense kind of thing? If you have to deal with them, go on the offensive? (gently, zen-like, laser focus, etc.)

    My feeling is that if a CD person is in your life, they want something from you. Don’t give it. And that will make them go away, hopefully. Be a dry well. Don’t throw them ego kibbles.

    1. Yes, it’s often best to stay as far away from such folks as you can. But there are many situations where that’s simply not possible or practical. And sometimes, it’s inevitable that a showdown must occur. That’s when your confrontation skills need to be well-honed. The principles also work for mental health professionals working with impaired characters who fall somewhere along the continuum of treatment amenability.

  2. People often think of confrontation as coming up to the CA and starting a conversation… “I feel uncomfortable when you do x, would you mind doing things differently”. This works with us, not with them. And they will hijack the conversation by launching into explaining and justifying and and putting us on the defensive so that we back off.

    1. Great point, Vera. And remember, the heart of confrontation is facing an issue head on. And in facing issues, the real power is in deciding what YOU will do in response to the issue of concern, rather than what you will try to persuade or coerce the other person to do.

      1. That’s the crux, ain’t it? 🙂 I wish a teacher took me aside after school in 5th grade, and made me write it on the blackboard over and over.

        If you do X, I will do Y.
        Rinse and repeat.

        1. That is so funny Vera! But, really……it’s the missing link, isn’t it! For me personally, not that I really got this until just now, to give the x y ultimadium was risking that the “relationship” would be over and ultimately I didn’t WANT it to be over. Still don’t! He know that and I do believe that’s his ace in the hole. He spotted a lonely, companionship hungry chump right from the get go. I just don’t want to think I’ve been that blind or that I let myself believe something that wasn’t sincere!!

      2. I do not understand your explanation. We confront the manipulator so that he would modify his behavior or repair damage that he has done, don’t we? If he doesn’t want to change, it’s time for us to enforce our limits. Is this true? Please correct me if I am wrong.

        Anyway, thanks for writing this article, Dr. Simon. The concepts sound great, but it would be helpful if there are concrete examples of these principles. Personally, I found sometimes it’s hard to translate concepts into actions. Did you ever write about the process of confronting manipulator and responding to his tactics (based on your real experience)?

        1. I think you have the gist of it. And you will find more concrete examples of employing the techniques in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, especially Character Disturbance. But specific to your question, you can “invite” behavior modification with your confrontations but your real power is deciding what action you will take to enforce limits and boundaries and in response to repeated failures on the other person’s part to meet reasonable expectations with regard to their behavior.

          1. OK, thanks for your clarification, Doc. I think that’s what you mean by “investing energy where we have power”.

            I’ll try to find the concrete examples in your books.

  3. It has struck me from the first time I was taught the so-called assertiveness formula, that this approach to constructive confrontation was too high-risk to use with certain people – the ‘formula’ being:
    ‘When you do X, I feel Y, so please do Z’. (the third part varies indifferent versions.)

    Long before I discovered your work, Dr Simon, some gut feeling told me it was FAR too risky with certain difficult persons to make myself vulnerable by telling them how I felt, or worse, that their behavior made me feel a certain way… my gut instinct telling me that the voice in their head would be saying: ‘Oh good – it’s working!’

    But that’s what most (unimaginative) assertiveness-training courses tell you to do, without any variations. Name what they do, share your feelings about it, and ask for change.

    I think your approach to confronting – which I would suggest allows you to leave your own emotions outside the picture – is a much better one. Not least because of what Chumplady says. It might help motivate an insensitive but decent person to change if they see the impact; but has no motivational effect on the CD person and worse gives them ammunition to use against you. It gives them useful feedback, as it were, as to their successful performance in targeting your weak spots and vulnerabilities. (To help them to do it better in future?!)

    Beyond that I can’t quite explain the whys & wherefores of my gut instinct that to reveal your own emotions makes you vulnerable with the CD (I’m normally someone very comfortable sharing my emotions) — just that it’s a gut instinct that runs against my typical style, and as you teach us to trust our gut instincts, I’m listening to them from now on!

    Do you have a view on this?

    1. You are spot on in this regard. And the art of confrontation has nothing to do with sharing your feelings. Doing so can indeed make you more vulnerable (not that really astute CDs can’t already read the emotional pain they’re inflicting). It’s not about the feelings anyway, it’s about the behavior. And it’s also not so much about shining the light on the behaviors (they generally know what they’re doing anyway) as opposed to taking notice yourself and responding appropriately. No need to red flag, just act.

    2. I don’t know if anyone has said this before, so maybe it needs to be said: Non-Violent Communication does not work with bullies. Period.

      1. Well said, Vera. And while not all character-impaired individuals are of the type you describe, when it comes to “bullies” or any of the many aggressive personalities I’ve written about, there’s really nothing to talk about, just protective and empowering action to take. As you note, “positive communication” is an unnecessary and often futile exercise.

  4. Dr. Simon, I absolutely love the info you are supplying people. The terminology and knowledge that I have gained from the articles I have read have definitely made me feel better about facing the problems my husband and I have with his ex-wife. Maybe you can be the first to write an excellent book on how to deal with an ex that suffers from CD/covert-aggressive personalities. AND then, possibly, that book can be used as a tool for mediators to use in family courts and have both parties agree that certain behaviors are to be avoided because behaving a certain way (that can be proven) may result in a party being considered emotionally unstable (which then, can result in court ordered counseling/therapy). Having exes that suffer from these personality disorders is absolutely miserable for everybody, and affect the children greatly. For the most part, emotionally intelligent parents raise emotionally stable children. It is a shame to see parents that manipulate everything and everybody to get what they want be the main person influencing and raising children. I believe it is a vicious cycle of learned behavior. Family courts focus on parental alienation and while parental alienation is a problem for some it is the result of CD. I really feel what you talk about is the real problem that NO ONE ELSE addresses in the world of family court. Thank you for valuable info and your time!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, for your insights, and for your kind words. It’s validation from folks like you and the positive reviews given my books and other works that has sustained both me and my work over the years.

  5. What do you do when there is a baby involved and the abuser is possessive of that child? He is physically in control of everything. Threats of “the worst child custody battle ever” are made even though the law would always side with a nursing mother who is a model parent and has a wonderful reputation. Thank you for sharing your advise and wisdom.

  6. I am so appreciative of all the thoughtful input that people give here. It not only helps to not feel alone in all this, but also people have such interesting questions and opinions and emotions to share. I love this site. And I love your books Dr. Simon. they are so broken in now for having been read by myself and others so many times!
    I have been practicing the art of benign confrontation and it is incredibly difficult, but I imagine it gets easier with practice. Suppressing emotion is by far the hardest part for me when confronting. I am practically shaking with a combination of fear and frustration while doing it, and for at least an hour afterward. With my MIL, I counted 7 tactics used last night (and evasion and denial were used several times!) and trying to keep up with them while they’re being thrown at you is beyond exhausting.
    Now, my Mother in law is a highly manipulative person. She is the person I’m practicing with. (and our relationship, which I consider fair to good, is actually improving) But she is PEANUTS character-disturbed compared to the ex-friend who still lives in my community/has kids in the same school/is on the same committees as I am. This is a person who has hurt both me and my kids (and her own kids!) with her lies, con-games and tactics. I see no evidence of empathy whatsoever, even for her own family. I think she is far enough on the spectrum to be considered a sociopath. That is a whole other ball of wax and frankly, I need some serious practice before I ever interact with her again. It is only a matter of time before I have to…I will be ready.
    Many, many heartfelt thanks for the perspective, the knowledge, the skills, and the enlightenment!

  7. How I wished I found this website sooner! I’ve only recently started reading more about manipulative behaviour since I have realized a friend of mine is pulling this on me. And it has caused me more and more pain and frustration for me that I needed to seek for help. I have learned a bit more of how to deal with her behaviours but since I am still learning and in the transition phase I still get those occasional setbacks. I otherwise keep my distance and contact to her to a minimum which helps reduce the damage. Accordingly to the part ‘to see the light’, this was my motivation when I started confronting her and have now understood and seen that this is useless. But I have also understood the reason I want her to see the light is because I, well frankly, still care for her as a friend. Or maybe I just want her to be my friend without too much stress (I am aware nobody is perfect). And hence if I could ‘fix’ her then we would be friends just fine. I do feel easily guilty due to childhood abuse and she is fully aware of it (because I told her I had family problems out of pure naive trust) and she uses this weakness as a weapon against me. The only reason I hang out with her every now and then or want her to be my friend is because I find it difficult to find people/friends whom I know who have the same interest or at least is open enough to try new activities with me. Just like the reason why I am going with her to this festival this weekend is because I don’t know anyone else who wants to go. And I stubbornly want to go and not miss this opportunity. But now I am panicking. We are only going for a day but I fear the worst since it will be only two of us for a 3 hour car ride and the whole day together. And we have been on a road trip before (5 hour trip and over the weekend) with a few other girls and YES it turned out to be pure HORROR for me where I just wanted to bail and turn back and go home but couldn’t (I even ended up secretly crying in the car). I’m searching for quick-temporary answers to be prepared and survive the short trip this weekend as I tremble at all the possibilities. Dr. Simon or anyone out there with any advice? I definitely will learn more about this behaviour and how to deal with it so that I don’t necessarily have to be the one running away!

    1. Hi Aria, good for you for reaching out and looking for empowerment. I highly recommend a speedy download of In Sheeps Clothing and Character Disturbance, Dr Simon’s books, they don’t cost much and you can read (or listen) to them straight away, they’re not overly long and I guarantee you, you will gain some ‘fast’ insight, better than any quick fix I could offer you. Money well spent on living free of the type of stress you already are 🙂

    2. Aria, I had a “friend” a long time ago now,,,,,in my teens and twenties and into my thirties. She was so mean to me…..used me as her punching bag but cloaked it in humor so it was very confusing for me. I even laughed at the jokes I was the butt of. But along the way of my maturation and through some counseling as an adult, I learned that she was NOT a friend, was treating me in a way that was way beyond disrespectful and basically abusing me. And that was that. I will not be friends with her ever again under those conditions. I really don’t see her much anymore anyhow, out lives have gone their separate ways for the most part and that occurred before I went through this nightmare with Spathtardx. I have divested myself and really stand no chance of any further harm coming from her but if I did have the occasion to be around her and she pulled some kind of verbal assault at my expense I feel certain it would be her last. BubBye! not worth it to me.
      You must decide for yourself if it is worth it and if it is, be willing to accept what goes along with that choice. You sound VERY aware and to be honest with you,,,,,it sounds like you are “using” her in a way if something negative comes of this encounter it shouldn’t be a shock, yeah?
      Please excuse the directness of my comment but I don’t know how else to say it.
      Good luck!

      1. Thanks for your input Puddle. To be honest I am unsure of myself if it falls into the category using her or my deep down willingness of wanting to be friends. We got along so well in the beginning that people thought we were in a lesbian relationship (I have nothing against lesbians, but it wasn’t that kind). She can still be very nice sometimes (defends me if I get ‘bullied’ by another person etc.), but since I’ve noticed some occasional misbehaviour I start to question if it’s a strategy to gain my trust in the first place. But I fully agree with you that it’s a complete package I guess, as I am in no control of her behaviour. I think I am just still very confused of all of it since it’s my first encounter with a CA person, or at least that I am aware of. I will surely get those books, I hope they can help me clear this up too.

        1. Aria, this is not a life or death decision you are making about your friendship with her so maybe see how it goes and decide what you are willing to let be and what you are not willing to tolerate. try statements like “that felt really bad when you said to did ______”
          ” I don’t like _______ “, See where she goes with it. You are an individual with your own likes and dislikes, sensitivities and feelings. If she is a friend, she will “hear” you and take it to heart and do her best to be sensitive and mindful about your vulnerabilities, she won’t rub salt in the wound or poke at it.
          I hope it work out for you but if not, there’s no shame in letting it go and finding other friends who will honor you. 🙂

          1. Another thing you could do is to start by telling her how much you used to enjoy your friendship, how it was in the beginning, what it meant to you, etc…..and then tell her it is not feeling good anymore because of X,Y,Z……. It seems to me that is any relationship is “meant to be” the people involved in it will be able to express themselves, be heard and make the adjustments necessary for it to continue.

          2. Puddle, although I do agree with expressing one’s feelings is important. I feel it is definitely more important (as you said) when it’s for a mutual result. I have never tried telling her explicitly how I feel and I never will. Purely because she is aware when she says/does something upsetting to me (i.e I got fired from work, she had a smile on her face, when I asked why she said ‘it’s just a joke’)and THAT didn’t seem to even slightly bother her conscience. Openly telling her my vulnerabilities even more seems like suicide to me. If there are any windows for emotional abuse that she is yet unaware of, then I might as well have helped her myself.
            For now it is a life and death situation for me as I have yet learned to restrict and set boundaries. The whole trip, although I managed to have fun, was filled with strategic thinking as she tried her best to make sure I didn’t have fun (lots and lots of guilt trips). The stress is just not worth it. I am curious though why these people live their lives that way, how they get joy in being so bitter and cold-hearted. I am currently reading the book to be prepared for any future problems. I can’t change them, but I will make sure they don’t do damage when they intend to!

  8. Aria,,,,,I wish you the best and hope the book helps you. I hear you about revealing your feelings to her and if it’s not safe, in my opinion, it speaks volumes, I wouldn’t want someone in my life that I felt that way around :(/

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