Ever since I posted the articles Don’t They See? Why the Disturbed Characters in Your Life Don’t Seem to Get It in February of 2011 and They Know What They’re Doing in August of 2012, I’ve had requests to explore in greater depth the issue of just how aware disturbed characters are about the things they do, how much they appreciate the impact of their behavior on others, and most especially, the level of awareness they have of other people’s feelings, needs, and concerns. The question of “awareness” is inherently confusing, partly because our understanding of it has been heavily influenced historically by traditional notions about the unconscious mind, and public acceptance of the idea that most human behavior is motivated by factors outside of a person’s conscious awareness. But as most people who have been involved with a disturbed character know too well, a person can be fully conscious of their behavior and motivations yet not necessarily particularly mindful, attentive, thoughtful, or considerate. And that’s perhaps at least in part why there always seems to be so much debate about how “aware” disturbed character’s really are.
In today’s post, I’ll be making some general observations about the issue of awareness and reiterating and expanding upon some general principles I’ve written about before in several my online articles on the topic and in all three of my books, In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome. But in a bit of a departure from the usual course, I’m also going to let the discussion that will likely follow this post serve as a sort of “addendum” to the article, and will join the discussion and reply to comments more frequently and, hopefully, more quickly than is typical. In that way, perhaps not only will the “awareness” issue be addressed more comprehensively but also any confusion with regard to what it really means for a person to be aware can be cleared up. And I sincerely hope the discussion will be both robust and ongoing as I will be following up with at least one and possibly two posts on this same topic, often using examples from real cases to illustrate important points.
As those familiar with my work and books already understand, character disturbance exists along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is pure neurosis. By definition, neurosis is a condition in which a person’s internal conflicts (essentially, conflicts between one’s primal urges and the dictates of conscience), gives rise to considerable anxiety that is inadequately mediated by their unconscious defenses, which then cause them various “symptoms” of psychological distress. Sometimes these symptoms take on a physical form (e.g., ulcers, headaches, etc.) representing a “conversion” of sorts of the person’s underlying anxiety into physical illness. And if the person were fully “aware” of what was actually at the root of their symptom, they would take corrective action and be rid of it. But their “defenses” keep them in the dark about things. Neurotic symptoms can also be an outgrowth of the pain of emotional scars from early trauma, memories of which have been long repressed. The only thing the neurotic trauma survivor knows is that they’re miserable and want relief, but they don’t really know what’s at the root of it. In all these cases, the goal in therapy is to help the person get into conscious contact with what has been unconscious, affording them “insight” into the real reasons for their misery (see also: Insight, Neurosis and Character Disturbance).
At the other end of the continuum is pure character disturbance. By this I mean that what’s wrong with the person (i.e. the “symptoms” of their psychological disturbance) is not so much the inadequate way they handle the anxiety associated with an internal battle between their conscience and their primal urges but rather with who they are as a person – how they prefer to be – how they like to see themselves – and especially, how they prefer to conduct their relationships with other people. And in these realms, they are already very much aware (i.e. they know who they are, what they’re doing, and why). But what always troubles their more neurotic counterparts is why these disturbed characters don’t seem to appreciate the negative impact of their ways on everyone else. That’s where a distinction between “awareness” and concepts like attentiveness, consideration, thoughtfulness, etc. needs to be made. While the purely disturbed character might be very much aware, that doesn’t necessarily mean they care all that much about the things most of us want them to care about (I’ve repeated this little rhyming mantra in workshops many times: “They’re aware,.. they just don’t care).
Now there are in fact a couple of things that can compromise the disturbed character’s level of awareness at any given moment. For one thing, it’s very rare that someone lies at either extreme end of the neurosis-character disturbed end of the spectrum. Most neurotics have some degree of character impairment and most disturbed characters are not full-blown psychopaths (i.e., most disturbed characters have at least some degree of both conscience and neurosis). The other factor is habit. Personality is an ingrained and habitual style of relating. And when someone thinks about things and behaves toward others in certain characteristic ways often enough, and especially when they are “comfortable” with these modes of thinking and behaving, their patterns become reflexive or automatic. This speaks to the issue of “mindfulness.” A character-impaired person may exhibit a behavior we find abhorrent almost instinctively, without even thinking about it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing and why (i.e. it doesn’t mean that they’re not conscious of their motivation). Still, they might not be particularly mindful of their behavior or its impact.
I’ve written many times about the biggest mistake therapists not particularly well-versed in the treatment of character disturbance make, and unfortunately, neurotic individuals who’ve gotten involved with a disturbed or disordered character often make the very same mistake. They think to themselves: “If I can only get him or her to see what they’re doing and how harmful it is, maybe they’d stop.” The problem is (as I assert in all three books), most of the time, they already see. It’s hard to imagine they haven’t heard the same feedback from hundreds of sources a thousand times or more in their lifetime. It’s not that they’re unaware, it’s that they don’t care like we want them to care (they’re not at a level of character maturity to even want to care). And it’s not that they don’t see, what they’re doing, it’s that they disagree with the alternatives we wish they’d adopt (often they know full well what others want of them, but they’re unwilling) . So whether you’re a person trying to survive in a relationship with them or a therapist trying to facilitate their character growth, your focus must always remain not on futilely trying to get them to see things differently but rather to put the contingencies firmly into place that pressure them to do things differently. And once they actually do differently (even just a little), and experience the benefits of so doing, then things like mindfulness, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, and consideration have at least a chance to develop.
Much more to come. Discussion open.
And, by the way, let me once again announce the debut of Character Matters on UCY.TV this coming Sunday night at 7 pm Eastern Daylight Time. The program presents a great opportunity for real time discussion. Here again is the link: http://ucy.tv/Default.aspx?PID=96&T=Character+Matters