Conscience and Character

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.

8 thoughts on “Conscience and Character

  1. “It’s very hard to develop a conscience later in life.” Does that mean that even counselors are wasting their time when they are approached by clients wanting to change but not knowing where to start? Should they be upfront and tell them that it is very unlikely that they are going to change into a non-hurtful, empathetic, reasonable, responsible human being because it is too late?

    If all we can do is to hold them to account so they can’t “get away” with socially unacceptable behavior, then really, we are saying that at heart they will always be disordered. Is this this stance a common one among your peers? When I try to explain this to counselors who my abusive husband has approached (who in turn approach me), they say I have written him off as evil, even though I don’t even use that word. They say I should allow him room to change and not expect perfection. What would be a reasonable response without sounding ungracious?

    1. Great question, Celia. Even though it’s not really a completely accurate analogy, let me draw a comparison to how difficult it is to learning a second language later in life. You see, as a result of the brain’s developmental “preparedness” as well as the prime “focus” of a young person on learning essential social “tasks,” if we’re immersed in a second (or even more) language in our first 5 years of development, we not only can learn the language relatively easily, but also are likely to retain fluency in more languages later in life. But trying to acquire fluency in a second language later in life is a monumental task. It can be done, but with much greater difficulty. Similarly, the developmental task of forming a solid conscience is much more difficult for an adult, especially one for whom the task was not well-learned (for a variety of reasons including environment as well as constitutional “preparedness) before age 7 is a monumental task. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means that learning the task requires a whole different mode of intervention and one must be very careful to look for solid signs that real change is taking place.

      With respect to whether you “should” be more allowing of continued evidence that conscience development is not yet where it needs to be, that choice belongs solely to you. There is no “should” about it. People can and do change. But some change is very difficult and real change is far more than just lip-service. And the kind of change character-challenged folks need often requires entirely different types of intervention than is typical understood and practiced by helping professionals. And with respect to whether progress is indeed occurring: talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. You alone have the right to judge the actions of those with whom you are involved and whether or not they reflect sufficient use of therapeutic tools, and sufficient regard for you and respect for your value system.

  2. I have been part of an online support group for a couple of years now that helps people cope with the abusive/aggressive partners in their lives

    Largely down to the support and encouragement of this support group I have finally been able to separate from my husband of 20 years who moved out in March of this year.

    First I wanted to say that having read many many resources on the subject of verbal/emotional/psychological abuse & cluster B personalities etc. I hold your work in the highest esteem and I frequently quote you. For me you are one of the clear ‘voices of sanity’ amongst a lot of mis-information that’s out there on this subject. I also have both of your books which resonate with me strongly as being very accurate in describing the aggressive/manipulative behavior that I and others have been on the receiving end of.

    I applaud the fact that you recognize and promote the reality that individuals with chronically and deeply ingrained aggressive/manipulative behaviors are very unlikely to change. The more this message is spread the more people will realize that hanging in there for the “slot machine” to one day pay out is often a futile life-wasting endeavor. And hopefully more people will move away from these personalities and carve out a more enjoyable and dignified life for themselves.

    Dr. Simon, one of the questions that frequently comes up is what percentage of partnerships have an aggressive/manipulative personality in them? It seems to me that it’s at least 50%. I know it’s a difficult question to ‘guestimate’ at, but it’s such an important one in my opinion. I would love to know whether you have any thoughts on the possible ballpark percentage.

    Thanks again for your important contribution to this difficult problem of our times.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Veejay. I don’t think there’s any reliable data on the question you ask. Suffice it to say that character disturbed folks often seek out those most vulnerable to their tactics of exploitation and manipulation and more “neurotic” personalities often have characteristics of their own that attract them to what they perceive as strength, charm, confidence, etc. in someone who might also be of deficient character.

      As for the issue of not changing and the “slot machine syndrome” I write about, the syndrome is more about the futility of trying to manage the behavior of someone else (because of their default on exercising good self-management). Change is indeed possible, even for the disturbed character, but it’s extremely difficult and almost never happens when their dysfunctional behaviors are “enabled” by those in relationships with them or by therapists not well versed in the unique orientation for dealing with the issue.

      Again, thanks for your comments.

  3. Also reading your response to Celia’s comment and in particular your comment “the kind of change character-challenged folks need often requires entirely different types of intervention than is typical understood and practiced by helping professionals.”

    Are you able to recommend any reading materials or other resources that detail the types of interventions that would be appropriate to employ with character-challenged individuals?

  4. I have just finished reading In Sheep’s Clothing and must admit that my relationship with my husband looks much more clear to me now. I used to deceive myself into believing that his silent treatments are sign of him being hurt and that if I understand what is actually bothering him, I might be able to improve our marriage by giving him appropriate support. However, thanks to your book, I’ve learned that this is just one of the tactics of manipulator.
    Anyway, I was wondering, can person act neurotically in most of his relationships, while compansating it with covert-aggressive behaviour towards his spouse? My husband will do anything for his friends and family, often trying to please them at his own expense. On the other hand, he is extremely manipulative with me and always seeking new ways to undermine my needs.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments about my work and its benefit to you, Tamara. With respect to your question, everyone falls along a continuum of relatively “neurotic” to more character disturbed. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to behave more neurotically at different times and in different situations. In addition, even mostly neurotic individuals can exhibit covertly-aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors at times. Plus, individuals who exhibit such behaviors aren’t necessarily precluded from having the ability to relate to others in a generous and loving manner. Although it’s not possible to speak to your situation directly, you might want to consider some of these issues. Consider also that everyone tends to be the most “neurotic” in situations in which their anxiety is highest, which can often be when their sense of security is at its lowest. That helps explain why some individuals behave in one manner toward some folks but in an entirely different manner toward those with whom they are more sure of the level of commitment and bond. That’s why it’s so important to be reasonable yet firm when setting boundaries and expectations and holding others accountable for their actions.

  5. I’m moved by these conversations. I married a man I believe has these personality defaults. I don’t know if your page is still active but if is will you please contact me on email.

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