One of the big differences between the folks I describe as “neurotic” and those who are to some degree disturbed in character is the degree to which they have developed a mature and functional conscience.
Neurotics often have well-developed and sometimes excessively active conscience or superego. They have a huge sense of right and wrong. They strive very hard (perhaps too hard at times) to meet what they believe to be their social obligations. They will sometimes set standards for themselves that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet. The demands they impose on themselves frequently engender a significant amount of stress. They are prone to taking on inordinate burdens, proverbially carrying the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. When something goes wrong, they quickly ask themselves what more they can do to help make the situation better. They also judge themselves harshly when they don’t feel that they have done enough. Neurotics hear quite clearly that little voice that speaks to most of us about how we should conduct ourselves, and they become easily unnerved when they don’t do as they believe they should.
The conscience of the disordered character, on the other hand, is remarkably underdeveloped and impaired. Most disturbed characters don’t hear that little voice in their heads that urge most of us to do right or admonish most of us when we’re contemplating doing wrong. They don’t “push” themselves to take on responsibilities, and don’t “arrest” themselves when they want to do something they shouldn’t do. If they do hear that little voice, they can silence (or “compartmentalize”) it with great ease. But for many disturbed characters, that voice is quite weak in the first place. In the most severe disturbances of character, conscience is not simply weak, underdeveloped, or flawed, but absent altogether. Even the capacity to form a conscience is sometimes nonexistent. Dr. Robert Hare aptly named his book about the most severely disordered character, the psychopath, Without Conscience. It’s hard to imagine there are individuals with no conscience at all. That’s one of the main reasons such people are able to prey upon others. Very few can believe that the person they’ve been dealing with is as heartless or remorseless as they intuitively might suspect.
In my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I give considerable attention to the disordered character’s impaired capacity to experience shame and guilt. This deficiency plays a large role in the malformation of their conscience and subsequent character development. But disturbed characters generally possess other qualities that affect their impaired conscience formation, such as inhibition deficits, and pro-social motivational deficits. In other words, they have problems delaying or denying urges to gratify impulses or desires. They also are not inclined to “push” themselves to “go after” or pursue goals that serve the interests of others (as well as themselves) but do not have any immediate lure or appeal or don’t appear to carry an immediate payoff.
In many of my workshops, I’ve responded to questions about what I think lies at the heart of healthy conscience formation. I respond with a phrase that rhymes and summarizes one of the key factors: “Internalization of a societal prohibition, is ultimately an act of submission.” That is, whenever a person makes it a part of his or her belief system to refrain from doing what they are otherwise tempted to do, it is because they have willingly submitted themselves to higher power or authority, enabling them to adopt a standard of conduct that serves the greater good. As I outline in both my books, this explains why the two most disturbed characters: narcissists and the aggressive personalities, have so much trouble forming good consciences. Egotistic personalities have an inflated sense of self-worth and recognize no “higher power.” They set themselves above the expectations most folks try to meet. The aggressive personalities are at constant war with externally-imposed demands, and resist the internalization of society’s values and standards of conduct from very early on in their character development.
Lacking in mature conscience, possessing a diminished capacity to experience shame and guilt, and lacking in the capacity to genuinely empathize with others, many of the more severely disturbed characters are also unable to have genuine remorse for their hurtful acts, whether they be acts of commission or omission. While they might have superficial regret for some actions, especially if they’ve paid a personal price of some sort for them, they rarely experience the kind of true contrition that might prompt them to change their ways.
It’s very hard to develop a conscience later in life. That’s why if a person finds him or herself in a relationship with a significantly disturbed character, waiting for them to “grow up” and come to some sense of right and wrong is often a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, one can always hold such folks to account. Problem is that neurotics are often willing to be the conscience for everyone, including those around them with impaired characters. This not only makes life miserable for the neurotic, but also “enables” the irresponsible behavior of the character deficient person with whom they might be involved to continue unabated. That’s why getting a more balanced perspective with respect to issues of personal responsibility is key to surviving relationships with disturbed characters.