As I assert in my book Character Disturbance, and have been illustrating in my postings over the past few weeks (see also: Character Disturbance Exists Along A Continuum, The Continuum of Character Disturbance – Part 2, and The Character Disturbance Continuum – Part 3), character pathology exists along a continuum of both severity and specifity in comparison to its counterpart pathology: neurosis. And character disturbance of some type and degree is a much more commonplace these days than pathological neurosis ever was. It is indeed the “phenomenon of our age,” which is why it’s so important to understand what character is all about and how a person’s character disturbances contribute to the kinds of problems they’ll likely cause themselves and others in life.
For a long time, mental health professionals paid little attention to character and its role in people’s psychological dysfunction. Moreover, there were some in the professional community (especially those more firmly aligned with the medical and biological perspectives) who viewed it as both scientifically unsound and socially and ethically inappropriate to view a person’s problems as in any way a reflection on their character as opposed to purely the result of some “biochemical imbalances.” Thankfully, in recent years this trend has been reversing. Many now realize the importance of character and the preeminent role it so often plays in the kinds of other pathologies a person might exhibit. Besides, we’ve proven pretty convincingly lately that pills alone can’t make people well, even in those cases where the biochemical underpinnings of a condition are significant.
There is an inextricable relationship between the symptoms of psychological ill health a person is likely to display and their basic character structure. Narcissistic individuals who by stroke of good fortune have experienced a string of uncanny successes can become nearly delirious with self-confidence, displaying the kind of grandiosity that sometimes accompanies a manic episode. But when faced with failure that is both undeniable and impossible to attribute to external sources, these same individuals can also become quite despondent. Emotionally “dependent” personalitities can experience periods of heightened tension and depression upon losing sources of emotional suport. Insecure and socially “avoidant” personalities can experience anxiety bordering on panic when forced into a position of self-assertion and leadership. Sociopathic characters for whom the “jig is finally up” and who have had their illusion of omnipotence and control shattered can become truly deadly. Who we are as a person is a big factor in determining how we might respond to a given environmental circumstance. And while even the healthiest personalities can succumb to situational stressors, the strength and integrity of our character provide the best defense against a whole host of psychological problems (for more on this see the article: (Character as a Psychological Immune System).
Correctly assessing someone’s character is not only crucial for professionals trying to make sound judgments about prognosis and the most appropriate intervention, but also important for individuals evaluating the prospects for a relationship. These days, you simply have to know where someone lies on the character disturbance spectrum to “get it right” with respect to understanding and dealing with them. Last week, I gave an example of a man significantly character-impaired. And all the signs were there early on: a lack of empathy, a disdain for accepting obligation, the incapacity for loyalty and fidelity, etc. If only this man’s relationship partner had give proper weight to these features of his character (all of which were telltale signs of his malignant narcissism) and disregarded all of the commonly held but erroneous beliefs about what might be driving his troubling behavior (e.g., insecurity, trust issues, fear of commitment, past emotional wounding, etc.) – in short, if she had trusted her gut instead of the conventional wisdom, she would have saved herself a mountain of heartache.
Over my many years of practice, I learned one crucial lesson the hard way: character matters. Even in those cases where brain abnormalities are responsible for the problems occasioning professional intervention, the role of character can’t be discounted or ignored. People with various mental illnesses or developmental disorders will vary widely both in the kinds of problems they present and their likely response to various types of intervention depending on their dominant character traits. And I’ve also learned that despite the common perception that character issues are both impossible to change and therefore pointless to address, focusing squarely on them is often the real key to making things better.
This week, our country witnessed another tragedy when an individual of severely disturbed character took the lives of several folks whose only “crimes” were the color of their skin and their faithful search for life’s untimate truths. And while the political pundits will again debate whether the tragedy was the result of the ready availability of guns, cultural factors that promote racism, the poor availability and pathetic state of mental health care, etc., in the end you can’t escape the role of character. Attitudes of superiority and entitlement in a person are always a problem and it’s frightening to see how seriously sordid actions arising out of them can become when such attitudes go unchecked. And, besides, what kind of character thinks it wise to give such a disturbed individual a lethal weapon for a gift? Before all the facts are in on this case, we’re sure to find abundant character pathology all around.
I pray not only that the families of the slain and the community in which they lived heal but also that we as a society finally resolve to face the problem that threatens us all on a daily basis in so many aspects of our lives: the character crisis and the sociocultural factors responsible for “enabling” and promoting it.
I’ll have much more to say about the events of the week on Character Matters, Sunday at 7 pm EDT (6 pm CDT and 4 pm PDT) on UCY.TV. The program will be a live broadcast this week, so I can take your calls.