Having given literally hundreds of workshops on the topic of character disturbance, my audiences (helping professionals and lay persons alike) always seem to want to know how the various disturbed characters came to be the way they are and what can be done to help them change. I get similar questions from readers of my writings and blog articles as well.
You can boil down many of the underlying assumptions of traditional schools of psychological thought about how people become disturbed and how you help them heal in this way: People are inherently good and geared toward health. They become unhealthy because bad or “traumatic” things happen to them. They develop fears and insecurities as a result of the trauma they experience and learn to cope in less than optimal ways. With unconditional positive regard, empathy, and support, they can heal their wounds, overcome their fears, and become naturally inclined once again to lead healthy, loving, compassionate lives.
Some schools of philosophical and religious thought adopt an opposing view: Man is basically a “fallen” or evil creature, inherently defective. Without sufficient guidance from a higher power, and left to his own devices, man will naturally tend to descend into all types of decadence, indecency and depravity. His greatest need is to be “saved,” especially from himself.
There is also the “nature vs. nurture” argument. For a long time, behavioral scientists argued that we’d all be the same were it not for the fact that we are subjected to very different environmental influences and contingencies. But these days there is plenty of evidence that certain behavioral tendencies are strongly influenced by genetic, temperamental, and other constitutional factors.
As is almost always the case, it appears the truth about human nature lies somewhere in the middle of the various extremes expressed above. Man is neither inherently good nor evil. And he is neither at the mercy of his genes and biochemistry nor is he a mere robot, fated to behave solely as his environment has programmed him to act. He is also not inherently defective. And although he’s basically an animal endowed by nature with some very primitive instincts, he has the remarkable capacity to learn and grow in awareness, which makes it possible for him to become ever so much more than a mere animal. That’s what the processes of socialization and character development are all about. And it’s a difficult, painful, complex, and generally life-long process.
In my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon], I define the process of character development this way:
Character-building is the lifelong process by which we instill self-discipline and develop the capacities to live responsibly among others, to do productive work, and above all, to love. …[And] loving is not a feeling, an art, or a state of mind. It’s a behavior, and precisely the behavior to which the two Great Commandments exhort us to commit ourselves.
Similarly, I define a philosophy for responsible living:
Even though a person might begin life as a prisoner of the natural endowments he was given and the circumstances under which he was raised, he cannot remain a “victim” of his environment forever. Eventually, every person must come to terms with him or herself. To know oneself, to fairly judge one’s strengths and weaknesses, and to attain true mastery over one’s most basic instincts and inclinations are among life’s greatest challenges. But ultimately, anyone’s rise to a life of integrity and merit can only come as the result of a full self-awakening. A person must come to know himself as well as others without deceit or denial. He must honestly face and reckon with all aspects of his character. Only then can he freely take on the burden of disciplining himself for the sake of himself as well as for the sake of others. It is the free choice to take up this burden or “cross” that defines love. And it is the willingness and commitment of a person to carry this cross even to death that opens the door to a higher plane of existence.
In my forthcoming book, Disturbances of Character, I make the point that “ours is an extremely interconnected and interdependent world,” and as such the need for people of sound character could not possibly be greater. I also note that “my personal mission for the last several years has been to call attention to the significant social problem (of character disturbance) and to inspire people to address and overcome it.” And in one chapter of the book, for the first time I offer some core principles for successfully guiding people (especially children) through the process of socialization and character development. I’ve already posted one article on one of the “ten commandments of character” [See: The Ten Commandments of Character] I discuss in my new book. I’ll be posting some articles on other of these “commandments” in upcoming posts and hope they will spur a robust and fruitful discussion.