Disturbed Characters Say the Darnedest Things

Are you always asking yourself: “What in the world were they thinking?” when you witness the seemingly irrational behavior of disturbed characters in your life? And do you ever wonder if they really believe what they’re saying when they tell you what they were thinking? In my last post (see: Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy), I pointed out how crucial it is to find a therapist who truly understands the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) paradigm and employs it as opposed to feelings-focused or insight-oriented traditional talk therapy when trying to intervene with disturbed characters.  That’s because when it comes to the impaired character’s problems, how they feel is nowhere as important as how they think, and their fears or hang-ups are nowhere near as important as their irresponsible behavior patterns. Properly employed, CBT takes an approach very different from traditional methods to helping people change. In contrast to traditional psychotherapy, it does not focus on feelings, emotional conflicts or on past traumatic events. Rather, the focus is on the here-and-now workings of an individual’s thought processes and their habitual but problematic behavior patterns.

The primary guiding principle of CBT is that because our beliefs, thoughts and attitudes directly influence and predispose our behavior, changing the way we think will affect the way we act.  For example, if I hold the beliefs that women are naturally inferior to men, that women who enter into a relationship with me become a rightful possession of mine, and that women will naturally behave in an untrustworthy manner unless held on a short leash, I will likely tend to conduct my relations with women in a domineering, possessive, and abusive manner. And if a female tries to assert herself, I might entertain thoughts like “She doesn’t know her place,” or “She’s trying to get the better of me.” I’m then more likely to do things to assert more control in the relationship. In dealing with an impaired character, the primary task of a therapist (or anyone else for that matter who wants to prompt positive change in the person) is twofold:

  1. to challenge the individual’s dysfunctional beliefs, attitudes, and ways of thinking (i.e. “cognitive distortions”) and facilitate correction of them; and
  2. to encourage and reinforce behaviors that naturally flow from more responsible and pro-social thinking.

How can you know all the twisted ways in which disturbed characters think?  Sometimes you can know by the things they say, especially if you’re familiar with the most common “thinking errors” are astute enough to see these at play in their words.  I did my best to outline some of the more common ones in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.  I built on the work of some pioneers in the field (principally, Stanton Samenow) and added some of my own insights from years of work with all sorts of impaired characters.  But sometimes what a disturbed character says doesn’t tell the real story about the attitudes they hold or the way they really think about things.  That’s because sometimes they sometimes say things for the pure purpose of manipulating you and attempting to manage the impression you have of their character.  That’s why the most reliable indicator of what’s going on in their heads is the manner in which they behave.

Early on in my work with disturbed characters I learned some surprising and shocking things about the ways they think and behave.  I remember to this day the first time I was challenged to change my own way of thinking about people and the kinds of problems they have.  I was assigned to one of several different training practica, which happened to be a group therapy session for accused child molesters.  And I remember one individual explaining what was going on in his head when his wife happened to walk into their bedroom only to notice him touching her 6 year-old daughter in some highly inappropriate ways.  “She was asking questions, and I was only trying to teach her about some things,” he explained.  “I guess that was not the way to do it and maybe I should have waited until her mother was there,” he added.  Four other members of the group offered similar rationales.  And my training supervisor, certainly not accepting these statements as acceptable justification but nonetheless taking them at face value (as many clinicians did in those days) as indications of the beliefs they really held, suggested that our task was to “get them to see that this is no way to teach a child.”  But something about the nature of their assertions simply didn’t seem right to me, intuitively.  And being young, brash, possibly naive, and perhaps even a bit unwitting, I pressed this man (and others in the group) to explain further, asking tough follow-up questions and never really accepting for an answer things that didn’t really make sense.  Finally, one guy said something like “okay, okay, I wasn’t teaching her at all, and I knew it was wrong but I wasn’t gonna do anything really bad to her either.”  And I’ll never forget what  happened after I asked why he (and the others) had said the things they said about “teaching”:  they just laughed.  Then, it hit me.  If you were a predator, but you wanted people to think of you differently, what would sound better: “I had good intentions, even though it looked bad on the surface, but I admit I used poor judgement so you can trust me in the future” or “I had my eyes on your daughter when I hooked up with you two years ago and I’ve been steadily grooming her ever since to have sex with me in the next few years”?   And when, after confrontation on this, many of these men admitted their real intentions, I learned a valuable lesson about how the games of manipulation and impression-management really work and why you can never take anything at face value when it comes to disturbed characters.  Sometimes, they don’t really believe what they’re saying, but just want you to believe it so that your opinion of them will not be as bad as it would otherwise be.

On another occasion in my early training, I was working with a group of batterers.  They’d all been given their pamphlets and treatment plan materials.  One by one they said the right words:  “I take full responsibility; I know I was wrong.”  But soon, and without exception, I began hearing things like “it’s not like they say”; “I never hit her that hard” (this is the thinking error and tactic of minimization); “the police report doesn’t tell you about all the times that bitch taunted me (this is the responsibility-avoidance behavior of blaming the victim).”  Their statements gave new meaning to the old adage: “talk is cheap.”  It’s  one thing to say you take full responsibility, but it’s quite another to display that you’ve really taken responsibility by changing your behavior by not reflecting in your words or actions the thinking errors and irresponsible attitudes that caused the problems in the first place. Disturbed characters don’t act the way most of us do largely because they don’t think the way we do. They don’t hold the same values, harbor the same attitudes, or share the same core beliefs about the world and how to function in it.  Sometimes, what they say gives them away, but more often it’s their actions that betray their inner workings.  And in my writings, I do my best to help acquaint folks with the the specific things to look for when trying to make sound judgments about someone’s character.  And in the next post I’ll have some more examples that illustrate the not only the thinking errors and tactics disturbed characters display but also how they’re best confronted and corrected.

19 thoughts on “Disturbed Characters Say the Darnedest Things

  1. Great stuff. But how does one effectively challenge those dysfunctional ways of thinking, without getting judgmental?

    1. Great question, Vera. One doesn’t. Being non-judgmental is one of those lofty ideals conceived of by neurotics to understand and relate to other neurotics. When it comes to the irresponsible characters among us, we simply must make judgments, not only about their character but also about their manner of thinking and behaving. Now, we don’t need to taint our judgments or our confrontations with tones of condemnation, belittlement, sarcasm, or any type of negativity. We simply need to call out the problematic thinking or maladaptive behavior, and invite it to be changed to a more pro-social way of doing things. And make no mistake, disturbed characters are generally already aware of the “judgment” cast upon their ways of thinking and behavior by society, so there’s no need to belabor the issues. When you call them on their thinking or behavior, they know fairly quickly what you’re probably asking of them, and if they’re completely unwilling to work at changing things, you’ll know pretty quickly from their response.

      1. “We simply need to call out the problematic thinking or maladaptive behavior, and invite it to be changed to a more pro-social way of doing things.”

        I see it all intellectually, but not behaviorwise. After you understand they are plying you with BS, how do you call out and confront them then?

        1. You certainly don’t have to red flag it because they know what they’re doing and why. You just need to request they do differently. And reinforce pro-social efforts. Like: “You can show me you’re taking responsibility by not minimizing or blaming others anymore.” Or: “I really liked it when you asked me that question without an accusatory or demeaning tone.”

      2. ‘Being non-judgmental is one of those lofty ideals conceived of by neurotics to understand and relate to other neurotics.’ I love your iconoclastic streak! (I say this wholly positively and with admiration.)
        A penny dropped for me on reading this. The modern sacred cow of being ‘non-judgmental’ is a way of avoiding accountability. That is, avoiding taking responsibility for making sound, compassionate, but accurate judgments and being accountable for them. Including putting your hand up to say ‘I got it wrong’ if we did. We feel safer avoiding making a judgment altogether and therefore being wrong (we think). Of course if you really did totally avoid being ‘non-judgmental’ you could take no action, on anything.
        So it isn’t really achievable.
        Therefore it’s like many paradoxes: we think we’re being non-judgmental, but really we’re hiding from our own hidden judgments. Maybe a good illustration is your recent posts and the posts of many responders on therapists being hood-winked: they might think they’re being non-judgmental; but in reality by avoiding ‘judging’ the character-disturbed person, they are passing an adverse judgment on the victim and the reality of their testimony, experience, and point of view.

  2. are you saying that a person with a character disturbed personality can change?that a personality disorder is treatable?that a sociopath or a narcissist or pedophile can become a normal person thru treatment?that a person without empathy can “learn” empathy?i would discourage anyone from holding such notions

    1. No, of course not. I’m saying what I have always said. Personality/character disturbances exist along a continuum, from mild impairments to full-blown “disorders.” Further, some disorders are by nature more pathological as well as non-amenable to modification (such as the constitutionally void of empathy capacity psychopath). But to the extent a personality style is “ego-syntonic” vs. ego-dystonic, there is variability with respect to how comfortable the disturbed person is with their coping “style” and therefore how amenable they might be to change. Environmental factors can also influence amenability, although long-term change always requires more than situational motivational enhancement. Suffice it to say that by definition, most personality/character impairments are resistant to modification. And as I’ve written about for years, the biggest reason folks allow themselves to waste years in toxic relationships has to do with hanging onto misplaced hope that the disturbed individual will change. Nonetheless, I’ve made a career of dealing with both victims and impaired characters and can testify to thousands of instances where impaired individuals not only could but did significantly change.

      There are so many false beliefs about personality/character disturbances that persist today that it’s hard to count them all. The key is in the perspective and approach. I have over 10,000 testimonials from folks who’ve told me that their lives changed in an instant once they cast off the old notions that were keeping them enslaved and began to see things in a different light. The same is true with respect to therapeutic perspectives on personality/character disturbances. And while no treatment could possibly alter a pedophile’s deviant arousal predispositions, or “teach or implant empathy in a psychopath constitutionally incapable of empathy (I have actually consulted to many programs attempting to do this and spoken to the folly of this notion), to suggest that individuals with personality disturbances are a homogeneous group or that no treatment is possible for anyone along any part of the spectrum is also erroneous.

  3. Dear Dr. Simon,
    I cannot even begin to tell you how thankful I am to have found both of your books and this web site. It has finally explained the madness I’ve been living with for close to two years. What a bitter pill to swallow. I KNEW something was wrong with this guy right from the start but second guessed myself continually.

    Editor’s note: Most of this comment’s content has been deleted for privacy considerations. For those who are new to the blog: best to reach Dr. Simon personally through the “Contact Dr. Simon” feature, using the menu tab at the top right of the main page, which will route your requests to his email through the back channel.

  4. Quite honestly…..I’m embarrassed to say that a huge part of me must STILL be in denial about him. I cycle between complete horror that this guy might be some kind of predatory monster and that nothing he said and that I tried so hard to believe was true,,,,,,,then I wonder if maybe something is just wrong with him that might just LOOK like a character disturbance. I wouldn’t even know where to start to try to help him get help…… I need to help myself and maybe let nature take its course in his life.
    I apologize. This may be a misplaces “reply”. Not the right place. I wish I could speak with Dr Simon personally. I’m desperate.

  5. Dr Simon, I wonder what you think of my frustration that while psychodynamic approaches are often misapplied in therapy to batterers, victims are also often treated with approaches that don’t work? I used to devour and embrace CBT principles for myself, but it didn’t do a thing to help me gain insight about disordered characters in my life. What I needed was trauma therapy, while what the perpetrators around me needed was CBT. Instead, they got the talk therapy to make them feel better, and I was asked to identify the errors in my thinking because I was hurt when he bashed me!

  6. Wow, dumb comments from someone who is clueless. I’ve walked through this with my sister and, like June, the abuser talked but the victim was asked to identify what she did to contribute to the ‘relationship problem’ and change her responses to the abuse so the abuse wouldn’t hurt so much. Not even kidding. The abuser wasn’t required to admit the abuse or change. “Fix her” was the mantra. The victim was required to learn to speak assertively whenever she was being told how stupid, crazy, rebellious she was. Yah…THAT helped. Counseled in the presence of the abuser which totally validated his smirking self-righteousness. The abuser effectively manipulated the counselor into believing his innocence and the wife being “the problem”, and after the sessions was right back to his threatening, demeaning, fear-inducing tactics (“you’re worthless, you’ll never get a dime, you won’t get the children”, ruining her credit, keeping her in poverty while he spent money like it grew on trees, bullying her out of seeing the minor children). As sick as his behavior toward her made me, the ball-less counseling she received made me even sicker. Dr. Simon, I’ve learned a lot reading your entries on this website. Thank you.

    1. Ignorance and cluelessness I can accept as being natural, but what that one ball-less counsellor did sounds like stupidity. If the abuser managed to convince him there was no abuse and that situation was something other than “misunderstanding” conveyed, then that at least would be understandable, even though still hurtful. However, from what you tell, I take it that the counsellor knew there is abuse going on, since he asked the victim to “change her responses, so the abuse wouldn’t hurt so much”. Did/Does the counsellor think abusers are some cuddly little teddy bears, who only want to set things right?

      What your comment clearly demonstrates is that stupidity is one very huge factor in enabling interpersonally harmful behavior.

    2. Thank you for your kind words. Knowing that my work has helped folks understand and overcome their difficulties and empower their lives is the singular reason for what I continue to do.

      1. Dr Simon, I have a suggestion. When you revise your books, would you also add parts about counselling disasters like this? About ones that enable by flawed logic or plain, outright stupidity.

  7. Excellent post really gives an insight into how these predators think…in that what they say and do is all warped and that they always have hidden agendas.

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