Disturbed and disordered characters are very different from the average neurotic person, especially with respect to their level of awareness about the nature of problems. Most of the time, neurotics experience distress that stems from feelings and emotional conflicts that are intense and unresolved, yet for the most part, long-repressed and therefore, unconscious. For example, a woman might be in a funk for days without realizing that her despondent mood had something to do with the fact that it was getting close to the “anniversary” of her mother’s death. She might not immediately make the connection that her feelings of unresolved grief and loss are at the root of the problem. Or a man suffering with an ulcer might have grown so accustomed to his obsessive worry about his job that he’s no longer aware of it. He might even be completely oblivious to the fact that his deep-rooted mistrust of authority figures (which plays out in his relationship with his boss), based upon his experience with his abusive father, is fueling the churning in his stomach. Neurotics are often in considerable emotional turmoil, but the deeper root of their distress and sometimes even the very nature of the emotions they’re experiencing are often unknown to them. That’s why traditional supportive and insight-oriented psychotherapy is tailor made for helping neurotics deal with their issues. Once the therapist sets an atmosphere in which emotions locked out of awareness can resurface, the relevant issues can be worked through.
The problems of disturbed and disordered characters experience are very different in character. For one thing, the “symptoms” of their dysfunction don’t cause them too much pain at all. Rather, they cause pain and hardship for those around them. That’s why instead of seeking help, they’re often pressured into getting it. And although the troublesome behaviors they display might be so ingrained that they occur fairly “automatically,” that doesn’t mean the disturbed character isn’t fully conscious of them or the impact they have on others. Disturbed characters are, for the most part, very much aware. Most of the time, they’ve heard a thousand times and from many sources just what attitudes they hold and behaviors they display are a problem for others. So they certainly don’t need a therapist or anyone else for that matter to help them “see” the error of their ways. They know their ways inside-out. And because so much of the time these ways get them the things they want, they are easily reinforced in their behavior patterns. So, as I have said many times, they already “see” but simply “disagree” in their hearts with the ways of thinking and standards of conduct others want them to adopt.
Traditionally-minded therapists have a very difficult time understanding the whole concept of the disturbed character’s awareness. In my classical training, I was taught never to ask a client “why” they did something because it would likely “throw them on the defensive” and they would be “afraid” to disclose. Besides, they were supposed to be in the dark about the real underlying reasons for their behavior, anyway. So, even though I was very interested in their motives, in my early work I did not ask them directly. A fair amount of the time, when I did broach motivation issues, they would reply with something like: “To tell you the truth, doctor, I really don’t know,” or “That’s what I’m in therapy to find out.” This would reinforce in me what I’d always been taught: that our primary therapy task would be to build a trusting relationship and then carefully uncover the unconscious underpinnings of their disturbing conduct. Eventually they would come to “see” the problems with their behavior and work through their “issues.”
What a surprise it was to learn that such an approach was a total waste of time and that the disturbed and disordered characters I was working with were, in fact, keenly aware of their problematic thinking and behavior, despite the fact that they might use the manipulation and impression-management tactics of “playing dumb,” “feigning innocence,” or “feigning ignorance” to cast things otherwise. And eventually I came to believe (as have several colleagues and researchers working in this area) that most of the time, when a disturbed character says “I don’t know” they really mean:
- “I’ve never really think about it that much.”
- “I don’t want to think about it.”
- “I don’t want to talk about it now.”
- “I know very well why I did it, 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.”
- “I don’t want to disclose because I want you to buy into the notion that I’m basically a person of good character who made an unwitting mistake, oblivious about the harm I caused others — i.e., my intentions were benign and I am willing to increase my awareness with your guidance.”
So, “I don’t know” can mean any of the above and a whole host of other things. But in the case of the disturbed character, it never, ever truly means “I don’t know.” And when I politely but firmly stopped accepting “I don’t know” for an answer , I was astonished at how easily I began to get more straightforward answers that actually made sense. Most importantly, the games of impression management character-impaired clients tried to engage me in diminished dramatically. I also became fairly dramatically aware of how expert disturbed and disordered characters generally are on the subject of neurosis as well as the mindsets of many mental health professionals. They know how neurotics think, the attitudes they hold, and the naiveties that make them vulnerable to manipulation. They’re also familiar enough with the tenets of traditional psychology to know how to manipulate and impression-manage even a seasoned professional.
Therapy with disturbed characters quickly became a very different enterprise than that for which I was trained. No longer did I waste time and energy trying to get them to “see” what they already knew quite well. Rather, I began benignly but firmly confronting them on the destructive character of their typical modus operandi and encouraging them to try out alternatives and rewarding them for the willingness to do so on occasion. Naturally, some of these characters were too severely disturbed and too invested in their preferred way of doing things to consider changing anything at all. They did not stick around very long. But there was nothing lost there, and many of these same individuals came back later when their manipulations and strategies had ceased to work well and they realized they could use some guidance. And some of the lesser-disturbed characters were actually happy to learn that someone else “got it” with respect to the patterns that cause problems throughout their lives. They used worksheets developed from my book In Sheep’s Clothing to better label heir thinking errors and tactics re-programming their life scripts and to begin the process of changing their life scripts.
In Character Disturbance, I outline many of the other key differences that differentiate neurotics from disturbed and disordered characters. And in the coming weeks I’ll be discussing these differences in greater depth, using examples from real life situations and cases.