What is cultural desensitization? It’s when a culture experiences things once widely regarded as rare or unthinkable as “the new normal.” When it comes to matters of character, nothing is as dangerous.
We’ve experienced a character crisis for decades now. It’s part of the legacy of modern culture. And in all my books, I mention that the crisis came upon us slowly, incrementally, so we didn’t notice what or how things were going wrongly until we began experiencing the worst effects. By then, it was almost too late, with all our relationships suffering badly. Even now, as bad as some things are, all too many don’t appreciate where we are, how we got here, ore what we must do to turn things around. That’s the very nature of cultural desensitization.
Cultural and Character Reclamation
Some cultural norms, institutions, traditions, etc. are meant to pass away. But others are well worth preserving, especially those proven to foster good character. (See also: Culture Influences Character and Vice-Versa.) So, while we must certainly part company with some things, we must do our best to reclaim some things as well. And chief among those things is the paramount importance of character. We have to bring character to the forefront of our lives, where it rightfully belongs. Like I assert in my Character Matters podcast, we must come to expect it again, both in ourselves and in others. And we need to demand it at those times when our welfare is truly at stake. When character re-occupies its rightful place, we’ll usher in a new cultural era, and the era of narcissism will fade into history.
Commonalities Across Cultures
Character-related problems plague all cultures. That’s one reason In Sheep’s Clothing is a true international bestseller, published in numerous languages. And as you may know, a Spanish language edition, Lobos Con Piel de Cordero, was published earlier this year. Soon, a new page on the blog will be devoted to this edition. And several of the best articles will be reposted on that page in Spanish.
27 thoughts on “Cultural Desensitization to Character Dysfunction”
To those who have suffered narcissistic abuse – because you are the only ones who understand: I am in alanon – a 12 step program and working with a sponsor on learning the steps. We are on a step which requires one to make a list of amends to the people we believe we have harmed. My sponsor asked if my ex was on the list – she knows he was a narcissist – and I believe he was a full blown type, a sociopath. Anyways, I know I have many defects of character but he is not on my list. I can think of my defects of character in regards to others but not him-I think that asking for me to make amends to him is like asking a victim of abuse – which is what it was – how they contributed in the abuse. By the way, when I was with him I had no idea what narcissism was for I fell for all his stuff and discovered years later what he was and then the pieces finally fit together. Anyways- I do not feel I owe an amend and my sponsor thinks he should be on my list. Does anyone else have experiance with this sort of thing?
I suffered through the abuses of a malignant narcissist and would never even imagine apologizing to him.
Your alanon counselor is not educated nor experienced in what all is involved when having a relationship with a narc. If he/she were it would not have been mentioned. Are you kidding me? Apologizing to the narc would open the door for further abuse, just from the apology alone. Don’t put yourself in that position.
That’s my opinion.
Stand Strong kat.
I’m also in Alanon, sort of. I have participated in the groups, have the materials and follow the program. My experience was that many in the group were narcs themselves. I left because of the abuse, but still do daily readings on my own.
In my opinion, it’s great your questioning this and pushing back. Trust your gut. It’s not your sponsors place to tell you who should or shouldn’t be on the list. That’s your call. She can ask/suggest, of course, but that’s it. As you say, you do not think you owe him an amends, that’s that. It’s not her place to decide that and she needs to recognize and accept that and respect your decision. If she doesn’t, then you have more information about her and whether or not she is the best sponsor for you. That kind of thinking (the two sides things when it comes to abuse, is what keeps people trapped in abusive relationships and feeling guilty instead of pissed and leaving).
Trust yourself, Kat!
Thats exactly how it was-I felt guilty in the relationship like everything was my fault. I finally got the courage to leave.
In alanon I am finding similar to what you are saying-its supposed to be a support group of sorts but I often don’t feel that way, I share what I think is helpful to others but I have found it hard to form relationships there for some reason. Being continually discouraged there isn’t motivating to keep going back although I like the program and what I have learned. I am trying to keep my expectations in check and I guess just not expect anything from others. But I don’t find it a friendly atmosphere from most of the ones I have gone to. Not sure if its me or whats going on though. Thank you because the sponsor should not be telling me my ex should be on my list, just because hers was. I have people on my list – just not him.
I’m so sorry you’re struggling with this and I’m sorry I’m late to reply. It’s been a difficult summer for me -again, ugh!- and I’m catching up on Dr. Simon’s posts.
I’m hoping my current experience may help you:
I was married within the Catholic Church and my summer started with my ex contacting me regarding the annulment the Catholic Church requires to dissolve the marriage in the eyes of the church. The Church looks for fault and for the reasons a marital union never was created which sent me into a bit of a tailspin.
Long story short, one of the ‘faults’ the Church lists is the inability to discern. Talking with the advocate, my age when I married-22. the short courtship, and the abusive background I come from impacted my ability to discern the character, motivations,, and actions of my future spouse.
My ex, of course, contacted me regarding the annulment because going the traditional way puts him at risk of ‘unmasking’ and he needs my help in entering a ‘joint annulment ‘ so he can continue to hide who he really is.
I actually offered him an apology that my age, my maturity, and my background did not allow me the ability to discern, to push back where I needed to in order to advance the relationship into a healthy partnership or shown that a healthy partnership wasn’t actually possible. I also offered an amend that I would work with him through this joint annulment so long as he took responsibility for his part of not developing the partnership. Of course, in true narcissistic fashion, he thanked me for the apology and amend saying how much it meant to him and not reciprocating. Haha. That’s ok though, the amend I’m offering doesn’t require it.
Honestly, the amend, the acceptance of my role ‘the lack of the ability to discern’ has brought me a great sense of peace. By accepting responsibility for something that ACTUALLY was my responsibility and that I lacked has allowed me to feel less victimized and less helpless, less hopeless. It’s made me realize I’m on Dr. Simon’s blog and reading his books to improve my ability to discern instead of seeking validation I’ve been wronged and I’m not responsible.
If you are no contact with your ex, I’m not advocating reopening that door and I’m certainly not advocating an invitation for your ex to abuse you some more. His faults include that little nugget, I expect. But you may want to include yourself in that amend due to your own inability to discern. You can certainly write a letter to your ex and never send it It may be, like me, accepting an actual fault may bring you peace. His fault of taking advantage of your inability to discern is his and I would be cautious in extending an invitation for further harm.
I’m not sure how my post will be received by the community here but I will say that when I received the annulment papers filled out by my ex for my signature and my fault of discernment was the focus ( are any of us shocked based on what we expect of disturbed characters?) for the first time in nearly 30 years, I was able to calmly call him and say that I wasn’t satisfied with how he filled out the paperwork and he could feel free to submit them himself for the traditional annulment because I wouldn’t be signing them for the joint annulment. I realize that I feel a sense of relief to know what responsibility I failed at and comfort in the knowledge that I’ve been working for years to rectify that lack.
I hope this helps you in some way deal with the feeling of being pressured by your sponsor. I think there may be a way for you to do both, offer an amend (in a future time when he is healthy enough to receive and accept it), keep yourself safe from further abuse, and meet an important tenet of your program.
Interesting perspective. Appreciate the well thought out and explained reasoning for that perspective. So good to hear that it was helpful for you.
I do have a bias against the Catholic Church, I’ll say that right up front. From my perspective, their patriarchal paradigm, history of abuses, including raping vulnerable children and then covering it up, instructing women to stay in abusive relationships and submit to their husbands, etc. They are a bunch of hypocrites and they’ve lost all credibility to advise me on issues of morality, or anything else, really. The new Pope seems to understand this and is admirably trying to address it and earn back respect and trust.
Most of us would likely recognize the “fault” of inability to discern. I would argue that even folks who did not come from an abusive background could/do fall prey to these folks. There’s a reason they work to hide it.
In regards to the making an amends to your abuser, I understand what you mean by taking responsibility for your inability to discern their character. Whenever we take a hard look at ourselves and our faults, and strive to improve ourselves, that’s empowering. We get new information and strive to do things differently. I imagine that’s what most of us our doing on this blog.
I struggle with the idea/wisdom of actually apologizing to your abuser for that inability. They preyed on you because they knew you had that inability! It’s not like they weren’t aware. It’s a key component for them.
Before my daughter became overtly abusive, I apologized to her for my ignorance and my poor boundaries. That I didn’t recognize her father was abusive. I do wonder if she saw that as an opening for further abuse.
As an aside, I did apologize to my father when he was older for my part in why we weren’t closer. To his credit, he told me it wasn’t my fault. That he wasn’t taught how to be close. My grandparents were the children were to be seen and not heard type. Emotionally shut down and controlling. It was a healing conversation, so I can see that perspective.
With a sociopath/psychopath/aggressive personality, I don’t agree with apologizing to them. They knew, they counted on it. You were prey period. They never wanted a real, respectful relationship. It’s seems self-defeating and humiliating and I don’t know about others, but I’ve had more than enough of that BS.
If one is feeling guilty because they are or someone else is telling them they SHOULD apologize or make amends, then perhaps write an unsent letter and rely on your higher power, if you recognize one, or the universe to deliver it.
Dr. Simon, would love to read your perspective.
Let me start by saying, I’m not actually Catholic and I hear you about the moral authority of an institution so ridden with immorality. I will add: paying for sins through indulgences, the Inquisition and witch hunts through Europe and the crusades and sacking of Constantinople to the list of the Church’s sins. Personally, while I lean Catholic due to its familiarity, I follow no religion because I believe they are all corrupted by the sins of man. I follow the internal moral compass we’ve all been given by God before man justifies going against. However, that doesn’t mean there cannot be any value within those institutions. We just have discern the good from the bad.
I also want to be clear, that the apology and the amend I offered wasn’t demeaning , humiliating or subjectgating to me in any way. If it feels that way to an individual, I’d say either that individual isn’t ready to take that action, it’s the wrong thing to do for them, or it’s not a healthy, functional apology.
I actually forgot a since, healthy apology can actually feel good and empowering. I didn’t apologize because I felt bad or guilty, or ashamed. I just recognized I lacked an ability I was responsible for having, acknowledged and took ownership of, which feels/felt good. I feel in control of myself, my thoughts, my actions. I feel confident that I’ve recognized, acknowledged and am repairing that ‘fault’ or lack. I do not blame myself for that lack because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. There was nothing intentional for me to feel guilt or shame.
What I’ve realized through this experience with the Catholic Church is when we experience abuse and, abuse of course, makes us responsible for, at fault, to blame for EVERYTHING reasonable and unreasonable. We have all the blame and they have none of the blame. We apologize for EVERYTHING over and over again. The apology the abusers seek is about their domination and our subjuctgation. Apologies in the way an abuser requires is disempowering not empowering.
The ‘amend’ I offered had limits. I am not taking all the blame (which is what he wants and is not getting.). To use Alanon addiction language, I will accept and apologize for my responsibility, my lack, my ‘fault’ but I will not take on his fault, his responsibilities and I will not enable his unhealthy behaviors by taking all the blame. My apology did not sound like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, if I only had the ability to discern I could have created a healthy, lasting marriage for us. Please forgive me, I’ll do better in the future.” That’s just yucko and so familiar to so many of us.
My apology sounded like, “I’m sorry my age, my background caused me to lack the ability to recognize the unhealthy relationship that was developing between us, that I didn’t have the ability to stand and hold my ground, push back and refuse when it was needed. Had I been able to do that we would have been forced to either do the work to build a healthy, lasting marriage or end it in a reasonable timeframe.” My apology takes zero responsibilty for his behaviors, that’s his responsibility not mine. And he is no longer welcome or able to thrust his responsibilities, his behaviors onto me.
If my ex went the traditional route of annulment, I would not have called him, opening the door for potential harm but I may have written an unmailed letter or voiced it out loud to the ether. I do not believe any of us ‘owe’ an apology to those who have taken advantage of and harmed us. But the power of a healthy, sincere apology has been instrumental in helping me let go of the pain and the power he still had over me. Frankly, the apology was as much to myself as him.
I’m not sure if how I’m explaining it is making sense. I wouldn’t have been able to grasp this concept a couple of months ago. And I’m not sure why it all clicked for me when it did. Maybe Dr. Simon has knowledge to impart?
In truth, the apology was as much if not more for me than him. In all honesty, I cannot forgive the manipulative harm he’s done to me over such a long period of time but the recognition (with or without an apology) and the ownership of my responsibility has allowed me to let go of so much of my negative feelings and thoughts and the constant pain. I’m not going to say I’m at peace exactly, but I’m feeling peaceful in a way I haven’t felt in a really long time.
I hope for peace for all of us whichever the ways and means we get there. Our road has been hard and our difficult road continues. Thanks to Dr. Simon for building a community we can share our troubles with and be accepted by others through all our steps and missteps as we do the work to figure things out.
I understand what you’re saying about the apology.
We are all dealing with different forms of character disturbed people, and what will work out well for one won’t for another. I can see how you owning your naivity when you were young, like pretty much all of us who married in our 20’s.
My X did not start out so character disturbed, but it worsened with age, and will working, raising kids, trying to have a “happy” home life, doing what I thought was the right thing, just put a bandage on the problem, which was him, and I couldn’t change him. He would control situations by yelling, which was intimidating. I’d run off with my tail tucked.
I’m not exactly at peace either. When a person abuses for a long period of time it does leave its mark. My mark is a stone wall that is hard for a man to penetrate. Which is ok. I’m protecting myself to opening up till I decide they’re worthy of me.
I’ve taken a year off from relationships, at a minimum, because I still don’t trust myself to make a good choice. I’m working on my impulsiveness, working on acting on situations rather than setting them aside and pretending they don’t exist. Trying to figure out what I even really want. I’m enjoying the peacefullness of living alone, finally, at 62.
With all respect to your sponsor, people who have no experience with the disordered or abuse are clueless. (Or sometimes they HAVE experienced such abuse but haven’t worked through their own feelings about it yet.)
Such people DON’T GET IT. They think it’s all a misunderstanding, that it’s possible to make amends, that you’re dealing with a rational person, that both of you caused problems in the relationship. They don’t get that your ex is dangerous and traumatizing and any contact with him would put your safety at risk.
I would be tempted to tell your sponsor that you won’t be getting in touch with your ABUSER and that they (the sponsor) need to drop it. Don’t second guess yourself on this.
I agree, they don’t understand that the only way to deal with a narc or someone with such abusive character is to be rid of them. And apology isn’t in order. It could cause even further harm and opens the door to more abuse. People just do no understand how volatile some relationships are.
To this day, after knowing my full history in dealings with my X, a good friend of mine will still say well why don’t you tell him this, why don’t you ask him that, why don’t you explain to him blah blah blah. How many times do I have to tell her I will never speak to him again unless it is absolutely necessary! I’ve told her over and over. So annoying, to say the least.
Lucy and Cam,
I totally agree, I can’t even think about it and its not that I don’t want to look at my part in relationships, because I will for any other relationship. My sponsor knows a lot about him and things that he did, including putting my life and our kids life in danger several times and, well I have a million stories of what went on. I don’t even want to go into narcissism with others who don’t understand what it is, I have tried and they don’t understand and who knows what else they think. I come on here and people understand what I’m saying.
Thanks Lucy. He has been deceased for a few years but I said to my sponsor that nobody understands what its like to deal with a narcissist but the people that have. I know the subject will come up again though. I went through years of abuse and I did not contribute to it other than being ignorant of what narcissism was and staying longer than I should have, had I known better at the time.
Charlie, Healing, Kat,
Very interesting perspectives from you all. I, throughout the years, have learned so much from you all, and am still learning, and damn still making mistakes.
I’m at the point now that I will never speak in any fashion to my X again. The last time I had communications with him was through an email, twelve months ago. I emailed him to ask to visit our grandson, which he, at the time, had guardianship of. Thank goodness he no longer does. He proceeded to bash my entire family, one by one, saying mean, hurtful things for no purpose other than to hurt me.
I replied in that email again stated what I’d asked him, which was when could I see my grandson. I did not entertain any of his insults, as if they didn’t exist.
As hard as I try to not let him get to me, within the next couple weeks I woke up from sleep screaming, having nightmares of him chasing me and attacking me physically. That’s when I became sure I could never again have contact with this evil being.
So, no, I wouldn’t apologize to a narc that has done harm. That opens the door for more abuse. And Charlie, I’m amazed at the level of control you have when dealing with your X. And I’m glad it worked out well for you.
I don’t know if amazing control is an accurate description. I’m not much of a fighter. I am a freezer. He would yell and scream and I would just freeze with a deer caught in the headlights stare. Then I would ‘fix’ whatever the tantrum was about and vow to do better in the future. I wasn’t a doormat, we would certainly discuss how I felt and his behavior at a later time, of course, I lacked the ability to recognize the conversation was moot since he already got what he wanted.
My problem was I just had loads of residual fear leftover from my childhood from physical violence. I would do almost anything not to push buttons to experience that violence again. He never needed to be violent to control me, just intimidating was enough which he was fully aware and used against me.
Of course, I didn’t recognize control was his agenda so I felt like I was controlling the outcome by fixing things or accepting responsibility. Level of Control was Something I actually had too much of And, I’m pretty sure if I experience his behavior without the mask, I’ll have nightmares again. His mask is firmly in place right now because he wants something from me. I have no illusions where he is concerned but I’m really pleased to have a piece of me back and I’m fairly certain no one will be able to take it from me again.
Your X had the mask, mine doesn’t. He was just openly mean and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. The definition he fits is overt narc, malignant narc. A very difficult person to be around.
I hate that my daughter deals with him, she still loves him and he helps her out in caring for our grandson. So she needs him so has to deal with it.
Last night I talked to her. I was supposed to have GS this evening and tomorrow, but she forgot, told her dad he could have him tonight. I said why don’t you call him and tell him I was going to have him. She says I really don’t want to deal with arguing with him. I said “I get it. I understand. That’s fine. I’ll see him tomorrow.” Rather than address things where he will get into his yelling and intimidation with her, it’s easier to let the jackass have his way. And I give her a break on pressing her to confront him, because it’s so damaging to her, having to deal with him. We both know he’s wrong, but let him get his way because she’ll suffer the aftermath for days. 🙁 I told her she’ll never have peace till she can come to a point where she does not need him and rely on him, then she won’t have to tolerate his behaviors.
I hear you about your ex. Sounds a lot like my dad. Very obvious, very overt. My ex is covert and wears a very personable mask. Most people are really taken by him. Interestingly, most people have a negative first impression of him which he then quickly overcomes with his charm, personability, and socialization skills. Then they’ll think their first impression was wrong and feel a bit bad about it. I include myself in that description.
It sounds like you and your daughter are making the best choices you can under difficult circumstances. Whether you give him what he wants by not fighting or if you choose to fight he gets what he wants anyway. These characters love the challenge, the fight. Giving him a fight and your grandson when you back down is way too rewarding for him so it’s your best choice to just let it go. Don’t poke the bear has been my saying.
You make a mention about my naivety in an above post. Maybe I’m being defensive but I struggle to apply that label to me even at such a young age. There is such an unconscious defense mechanism in play when that mask slips that it’s hard to blame naivety. And to tie into Dr. Simon’s post, so much cultural desensitivity that it becomes really difficult for anyone to discern good characters from disturbed characters. There is so much poor character trying to determine a good person doing bad things or a bad person doing good things is really difficult at any age, any experience level. I’ve been struggling my entire it seems with this puzzle.
Naivety was the wrong word choice. Not having dealt with a person like your X, inexperienced could have been a better word choice.
Yes it is not easy to discern good characters from disturbed, I so agree. I just got through an ordeal that took me some time to discern.
And I’ll probably be fooled again. Hopefully each time I’ll catch it sooner and not waste me time and energy.
My greatest fear is getting fooled again. I’m really hoping my work/study will help me with future choices. Still scares me though. I absolutely cannot go through this again.
Thats what I thought-I can’t go thru it again, but my two children, especially my daughter has narcissistic traits. She lives out of state so I just talk to her on the phone and visit now and then. But now I am aware of what she is doing and I don’t feed into it. I just listen to her about her life – she has two young children, my grandkids. I always keep in mind when she tries to get to me that its her, not me thats the problem – I always blamed myself before. I’ve been able to keep my peace for the most part but it still grieves me knowing I will never have a close relationship-but then again neither do a lot of parents with their children. I hope that I will recognize narcissism in others – I have but it has taken me a while to catch on. Thats all you can do is know what to look for and have good boundaries. If I would have had good boundaries with the ex, that stuff would not have happened. I’m still learning about boundaries because I grew up with parents that didn’t have them, and I had no idea when I was even being abused or taken advantage of. Its all a process though for everyone.
Sorry to hear that about your daughter. Good though that you know how to keep yourself balanced and still have a relationship with her. Yes, our kids can break our hearts.
The part on taking awhile to catch on maybe isn’t so much a bad thing, being that we finally do catch on. I think we still expect these people to act “normal” and when we see instances of questionable behaviours, we just don’t quite get it till several instances crop up, then we see a pattern. And the behaviours are so puzzling to me, it takes me awhile to process and figure it out.
Some are so good at their “craft” of manipulating others that it is scary to think we’d encounter a covert and become entangled with them. Seriously, I’m with you and Charles, I hate the thought of dealing with another one. They’re time wasters, emotional drainers.
I follow this saying now “Don’t trust one till they’ve proven to be trustworthy.” It may save me some grief.
Totally agree about seeing a pattern. After many years – and I am talking probably 10 years – because of my history of blaming myself for everything-I finally came to the realization one of my sister-in-laws is a narc. She is covert and good at what she does, plus she is on what I would consider to be the lower end of the spectrum which I think is much harder to detect. She has my family wrapped around her finger and she chooses who is a part of the family and who is not. She orchestrates a lot of what goes on and because of my tendency to blame myself I was again an easy target. I can’t go around my family except one sister because its just too damaging. So thats an example of how I let her and those who she controls cause me to feel bad about myself and take blame. I could never figure out what I had done, always blaming myself. Like you said, they are time wasters and emotional drainers. I am hoping as well that I can see it sooner and stop blaming myself!
To All: My understanding of an amend per Alanon is that it is not an apology, it is to take responsibility for whatever part I had in it. I too was not discerning because of my background – I was an easy target. Charlie, that is a good point about discernment, where I struggle with that is that I was not aware that I had poor discernment so how would I be responsible for a behavior that I was not aware of. I can see if I was able to see red flags and I decided to bypass the red flags, but for me it was somewhat more of the same as I grew up with – not that I dealt with narcissists growing up but alcoholic’s are usually narcissist to a degree – not like a true narcissist but in that they are very self-absorbed and unaware of how they are hurting others. My ex died several years ago.
I am still dealing with a narcissist daughter, her father was the ex. My son has many tendencies as well, like his Dad. It is disappointing to say the least. I have put them on my amends list, just not their Dad, was I passive-agressive at times and acting out some of my character defects – yes, I think we do with most people until we realize what we are doing, and work on changing those behaviors and beliefs. But I never intentionally hurt him, my conscience is clear on that. When he died, guess who was there in hospice holding his hand when his girlfriend was off somewhere else. I prayed for him throughout his life that he would turn his life over to God. I don’t feel I owe him anything or that I need to take responsibility in that particular relationship. Maybe at some time I will think differently but that is how I believe now. I appreciate your comments and mindful’s and lucy’s. Its good to share on here because most people don’t understand if they haven’t gone through it.
Apparently, discernment is something one is unaware of but the Catholic Church considers it ‘fault.’
You held your abusive, narcissistic, sociopathic ex husband’s hand while he was dying in hospice? Wow! You’re better than me. I don’t actually think I could do that. I’d be sympathetic, I’d probably send flowers, I might take a phone call or two but that’s over and above.
Sounds like you already offered and made an amend whether he deserved one or not or it was labeled one. I would consider telling your sponsor that if he/she’s still pressing you.
Also, you sound very confident, very sure of yourself. Trust in that always.
My greatest fear is getting fooled again. I’m really hoping my work/study will help me with future choices. Still scares me though. I absolutely cannot go through this again.
Me too, it’s right up there with the cancer coming back.
They’re kind of like a cancer aren’t they? Like a cancer of the mind and spirit eating away at you until you’re just a shadow of yourself.
Kat, Charlie’s right, you offered your amend, by ACTIONS, not words. I get it though. You’re still human and he’s a person suffering.
Same here. I’m afraid of being fooled again. I was fooled by the last BF, but took notes, mental and physical. I was able to piece it together. Looking back though there were far too many red flags, that I should have ended the relationship much sooner. I feel I was pretty quick, but could have been much quicker in “getting the picture”. I promised myself no more relationships for at least a year. I’m finally living by myself with no one to care for or deal with. It’s so peaceful. Just me. So peaceful I may not want another relationship.
And I do think I’ll be fooled again. I’m used to dealing with an overt narc (X husband) and the last BF was covert. He had a plan. Weird things were happening. Ugh 🙁