In the current series, we’ve been discussing why individuals with characteristics predisposing them to aggressive and egoistic personality styles have a hard time forming a sound conscience. And last week’s post (see: Conscience Development in the Aggressive Character) included a vignette of a young man whose tendencies to do first and consider things later as well as to self-direct in the absence of guidance and direction made it difficult for him to internalize the controls necessary to function in a healthy manner. But while folks with aggressive personality predispositions probably have the greatest difficulty developing a healthy conscience, those with egoistic traits have similar problems. Rather than being “at war” with a governing “higher power”as the aggressive personalities are, egoistic individuals tend to see themselves as “above” the need for such a power. They simply don’t recognize or respect the various entities in their lives capable of providing authoritative guidance, much to their own detriment and especially to the detriment to those involved with them. In today’s post, I’ll be presenting a vignette (observing the same caveats I outlined for the vignette in last week’s post) that will hopefully illustrate these points.
Brent, the Golden Child
Brent was a strikingly handsome young man. He was rather tall, had deep-blue eyes, and an award-winning smile. And he was as smart and quick-witted as he was good-looking. He was also good at a lot of things. But most of all, he knew how to wrap folks around his finger. “A real charmer” – that’s what everybody said about Brent.
The fact that Brent’s mother found it necessary to admit him to the adolescent treatment unit at the local psychiatric hospital was disheartening. She always knew her son could do just about anything he set his mind to. He was so talented. And she knew he could make straight A s in school if he really tried, especially if his classes weren’t so “boring.” But he’d been cutting class more and more lately, and had recently gotten into some trouble with the law when drugs, which he insisted belonged to a friend, were found in his car. As part of the conditions of his probation, he was required to get treatment. And while she wasn’t sure he really needed inpatient psychiatric care, she hoped his stint in the hospital might prove of some benefit.
The first time I encountered Brent, I was sitting behind him in one of the treatment unit’s “community meetings.” I observed him flicking his finger at the ear of a young man seated in front of him. The other young man was clearly annoyed, but Brent seemed to be clearly enjoying himself. After the meeting, and after introducing myself, I addressed this with Brent. It wasn’t so much what he said when he insisted he was “only having some fun” (clearly, at someone else’s expense) that impressed me so much as the casual manner in which he said it. And it would not be the last time that I observed behavior on his part that showed a lack of empathy for others or concern for the impact on others of his behavior.
As I got to know Brent and his mother, I learned a lot of things about dynamics in the family that raised a lot of red flags. Brent’s father passed away when he was fairly young. And as the only child and dearly beloved son, he was in fact the only man in his household. And to say that his mother had always put him on a pedestal would be a definite understatement. She knew how smart and talented he was. And she knew how well-liked he was. He had everything going for him. She knew that, and it made her proud. But perhaps more germane to their situation than the fact that she knew how smart, engaging, and good-looking Brent was, was the fact that he also knew it, and knew it well. Not only did he know it, but he really enjoyed flaunting it. And the more I got to know Brent the more I realized not only how he relished others fawning over him (which, unfortunately they did quite often), but also how, underneath it all, he had a fair degree of contempt for those he knew he could so easily wrap around his finger.
Brent tried to charm me, too, at least at first. And it bothered him a lot that his efforts at “impression-management” didn’t go so well. We talked a lot about recognition and respect and I made it a point to emphasize how important I thought it was to recognize only someone’s willful efforts toward pro-social behavior and my belief that respect was one of those very valuable commodities in life that rightfully needed to be earned. When Brent couldn’t get me to put him on the same pedestal others had just for being who he was, he tried to at least even the playing field by “leveling” me in status (“leveling” is one of the manipulation tactics I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance). He attempted several times to deal with me on a first name basis (a tactic unfortunately reinforced by some members of the treatment team who, aligned with more traditional perspectives, thought it more therapeutic to engage with their clients in that manner). And he made it clear that he didn’t see the need for authoritative guidance of any kind. After all, it had always been just him and his mother for many years, and things, as he saw it, were going just fine. Besides, he already knew what he needed to do to get ahead in life and secure the things he wanted. Like his mother always said, he could do whatever he put his mind to and he just wasn’t sure just yet what he wanted to put his mind to doing. He didn’t mind failing in school because the “silly stuff” they taught there was not what he cared about anyway. He was even old enough to drop out if he wished. He did want his mother to love him but he simply wouldn’t be “lectured” by her or anyone else. He was the ultimate authority in his life and had been for a long time. And he wanted it to stay that way.
Brent’s probation requirements didn’t mandate a lengthy stay in treatment, and as soon as discharge became a possibility, he was advocating strongly for it with his mother. I cautioned his mother that only in a situation where there was some degree of power over him would the staff have the “leverage” to really confront the crucial issues. It would take a lot of time and effort, given how long certain things had probably been going on to lead Brent to the point he was at now in his character development. The lack of empathy and degree of narcissism he’d displayed on so many occasions were red flags for some big future problems. And he was nearing the age when it wouldn’t be possible to force the issue of confinement, except in extreme and probably unlikely circumstances. But Brent’s charm, persistence, and promises of great things if set free, led his somewhat unsure mother to relent and discharge him.
It would be many years before I would run into Brent again. And it happened as I was walking down a wide corridor of one of the correctional institutions I was consulting to. “Dr. Simon, Dr. Simon!,” I heard a voice echo from a distance. Then I saw someone whose face seemed familiar, waving as he approached. “Bet you remember me, don’t you?,” he said, sporting his characteristic, charming smile. After he gave his name, and his face fully registered with me, I replied: Yes, Brent, I certainly do remember you.” Then, with just a hint of sadness in his eyes but not quite enough sadness to completely negate the grin still present but slowly fading on his face, he added: “Guess I should have listened way back then, huh?”, and went his way.
Kids who have a lot going for themselves and know it well can easily get a swelled head. And, if their parents and others make the all-too-common but almost always fatal mistake of heaping recognition and praise upon them for their God-given (or, if you prefer, nature-endowed) gifts instead of the conscientious exercise of their will, they’re quite likely to end up thinking far too much of themselves. They’re also likely to have difficulty feeling empathy toward those whom they are predisposed to see as inferior to them. And they can’t form the kind of conscience we want them to form because they can barely conceive of yet alone “internalize” (i.e. incorporate into their self-image) a “higher power” or authority to govern their attitudes, thinking, and most especially, their behavior. That’s why in Character Disturbance, I stress so strongly how important it is to recognize and reinforce the only thing a child can legitimately claim credit for: the right exercise of their will. Forget the blue eyes, the smarts, the innate ability to charm. All these “gifts” come from someplace else other than the person’s heart. And it’s really unfortunate that in our culture of narcissism, these are the things that draw so much attention and adulation from others. Besides, whenever a person is willing to claim credit for things given to them, it already speaks volumes about important aspects of their character. What matters reflects the state of a person’s character development is what they will themselves to do with the gifts they’ve been given. And if, as a society, we did a better job of recognizing and reinforcing a person’s efforts toward responsible, pro-social behavior, especially during their formative years, perhaps our prisons would not be bursting at the seams with folks just like Brent.