In last week’s post: Disturbed Characters Say the Darnedest Things, I gave some examples of how disturbed characters’ faulty thinking leads to behaviors and tactics that prompt them to behave in irresponsible ways and impair their ability to form mature pro-social attitudes. And I pointed out that when it comes to intervening therapeutically with impaired characters, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is the treatment of choice. That’s because changing the way someone thinks about things will necessarily affect the way they act. I also tried to illustrate, through case examples, the kinds of thinking errors or “cognitive distortions” a therapist working with a disturbed character is likely to encounter and how those distortions need to be challenged and corrected. Today, I’m going to share some more examples [Note: some aspects of the examples given have been deliberately distorted to ensure anonymity].
I once counseled a couple who had been having problems fairly early on in their marriage. We’ll call the wife “Mary,” and the husband “Fred.” As is customary, I asked each person to describe as best they could what they would consider to be the primary problem needing attention. After some reflection, Mary stated that she believed the issue was that Fred simply “didn’t care enough” about her or their family’s welfare to get a good job and stick with it. Fred very quickly stated that the problem was his mother-in-law who “never liked” him from the day he and his wife first met and had been “running interference” ever since. He added that he was doing his best find the right kind of work situation and that it was cruel and insensitive for folks in the family to hate him just because he was a bit down on his luck right now. he insisted that he loved Mary and that if she really loved him as much as she said, she would do a better job of standing up for him whenever her mother started tearing him down. Surprisingly, Mary not only acknowledged her mother’s dislike for Fred, but also voiced her sympathy for Fred’s plight. “I think mom might feel that no one is really good enough for her daughter,” she said, “so I understand the way that must make Fred feel.”
Fred eventually revealed a fairly lengthy roster of folks who simply didn’t like him. There was his last boss, who tried to cheat him and was jealous of him. Then there was his boss before that who found a way to get rid of him just so he could put one of his old buddies in the same position. There were also his two ex-wives, who not only didn’t like him but also never really understood him. And there were even his children from his former marriages who “had their minds poisoned” against him by their vindictive mothers. But what really stuck out like a sore thumb in the whole saga of Fred’s “hard luck” history was not so much that there was always someone else to blame for his misfortunes but that Mary seemed to sympathize with the notion that no one had ever given Fred “a fair chance.”
As is typical for impaired characters, when I first got specific with Fred about why so many others might have negative feelings toward him, he replied with the all too familiar lie: “I don’t know.” But as I’ve written about many times before (for example, see: Insight, Neurosis, and Character Disturbance, and What Were They Thinking? Pt. 2) most of the time, when a disturbed character says “I don’t know” they really mean:
- “I never really give that much thought.”
- “I don’t like or want to think about it.”
- “I don’t want to talk about it now.”
- “I know very well why, but I certainly don’t want you to know because that would put you in a position of equal advantage with me — having my number, so to speak — and I won’t be able to manipulate you as easily or manage your impression of my character.”
So, of course, I did not accept Fred’s “I don’t know” for an answer. Instead I pressed him on about the kinds of behaviors he’s displayed and the aspects of his character about which others frequently find fault. And, as was no surprise to me (but was, unfortunately a surprise to Mary), Fred was quite able to identify a fairly substantial list of problem behaviors and attitudes, ranging from being late to work, drinking too much, sowing discord among fellow workers, feeling like he was too good for the work he was forced to do, etc. that prompted ill feelings toward him by others.
Now, I could spend a lot of time addressing what might have let a person like Mary, whose intuition told Fred didn’t love her (or anyone else, for that matter) enough to get a grip on and work at changing the behaviors that had been a problem all his life , to hook up with a guy like him in the first place. And we could also discuss why she might have been so neurotically so concerned about how the disapproval of others made Fred “feel” and nowhere nearly concerned enough about his long track record of irresponsible thinking and behavior. But the point I really wanted to illustrate here is that how Fred feels is irrelevant to the work he needs to do in therapy to become a better person. And while there are many therapists who bristle at the thought of directly addressing the flaws in someone’s character, there is really only one focus that’s appropriate for Fred’s therapy (Mary’s therapy needs are an entirely different matter): confronting and correcting his irresponsible thinking and behavior patterns and reinforcing his genuine efforts to change them.
Actually, the story of “Mary” and “Fred” had an unusually happy ending. You see, no one had ever really called Fred on his character issues before. And he never had much character guidance while he was growing up either. Still, it’s not like he relished the task of taking a hard look at himself and his character flaws. But firmly confronted with the abundant evidence, it was hard for him to continue to deny them and to blame everyone else for his misfortunes. So fortunately, Mary’s first marriage did not end in disaster and after 2 prior failed marriages, Fred finally “got it right.” From time to time, he would slip into old habits. But he was ultimately as willing to hold himself to as much account as Mary had also learned to hold him. She knew well the key words to listen for that would signal distorted thinking and was quick to confront them. And as the result of her own therapy, Mary learned a lot about what made her so susceptible to buying into Fred’s old excuses in the first place.
I have some more examples to share in future posts. But next week I think it’s important, especially in the light of two major homicide-suicide cases in as many weeks, to discuss the dynamics of such events, which, although addressed to some degree in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, merits some additional attention.