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:
- to challenge the individual’s dysfunctional beliefs, attitudes, and ways of thinking (i.e. “cognitive distortions”) and facilitate correction of them; and
- 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.