I’ve been posting on the “phenomenon of our age,” (see also: Character Disturbance Exists Along A Continuum and The Continuum of Character Disturbance – Part 2) and how character dysfunction ranges in severity from minor “disturbances” of character to a full-blown “disorder.” Moreover, as I point out in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, most folks with character problems also fall somewhere along a continuum that has at its extremes what we have long called “neurosis” and pure character pathology. And in my books and other writings I make the point that the differences between individuals lying at opposite ends of the spectrum could not possibly be greater on certain essential dimensions, which has great implications for a relationship and the kind of intervention likely to have an impact if you’re seeking professional help.
In last week’s post, I presented an illustrative vignette featuring a man called “Jack.” Jack’s was an unusual case in that unlike most narcissists of our time, Jack was more the classic “neurotic” kind of narcissist as opposed to a purely character disordered one. Jack’s “denial” tendencies truly reflected more of an unconscious defense mechanism as opposed to purely a conscious tactic of manipulation and impression management (for more on the two types of denial, see In Sheep’s Clothing, pp. 112-116, Character Disturbance, pp. 44-46, 182-183, and 204-206 and the articles: Denial – What It Is and Isn’t, Traditional Therapy Biases and Denial, and Denial – Manipulation Tactic 4). And he had enough empathy, conscience, and capacity for shame, guilt, remorse, etc., to be somewhat horrified with himself when his denial mechanisms finally broke down. Furthermore, the tears he shed, , were only a small part of why you knew Jack was not so character-impaired that it would be possible, (although likely difficult) for him to change. While tears can indeed be an indicator of the kind pain known to prompt truly unconscious denial, I’ve seen plenty of tears shed and for a variety of less than noble reasons. Sometimes when the tears roll, it’s primarily the result of folks feeling sorry for themselves, stewing about their behavior cost them as opposed to the harm it’s inflicted on others. So tears alone are no reliable indicator someone is really remorseful (for an illustrative example see the vignette in Character Disturbance, pp. 81-82). What really helps you judge the nature and level of Jack’s character disturbance was his willingness to not only make amends but also to do all the other things he had to do to help ensure that he didn’t allow himself to slip back into the bad habits that led him to so easily inflict the injuries he had inflicted in the past. It was his commitment to changing, and for all the right reasons – not just “for show” – that not only demonstrated Jack’s contrition was real (for more on contrition, remorse, etc. see the articles: Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition, Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy, Contrition Revisited, and What Real Contrition Looks Like) but also that despite his flaws, he had a sufficient degree of character to profit from treatment (Jack utilized the worksheets I gave him, never missed a session, and demonstrated a clear change in his pattern of relating to others that held up over time).
“Mark,” was a much different character than Jack. He was a pretty narcissistic guy, too but not only was his narcissism of the more “malignant” or malevolent variety (for more on malignant narcissism see the articles: Malignant Narcissism and Malignant Narcissism: At The Core Of Psychopathy) but it was also more of a pure reflection of who he was at the core as a person as opposed to any “neurotic” compensation. Mark had always thought a lot of himself. In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t hold a deep conviction that he was truly superior to most other people in a whole host of ways. He just knew he was smarter, more clever, and most especially less foolishly “hung-up” about the things most of the “peons” he’d met in his life let hold themselves back. He was a winner, purely and simply, and those with compunctions – well, in the end they were just “losers.” That’s how he saw it. And he had nothing but disdain for losers. The way he figured it, people get exactly what they deserve in life, and if they’re stupid enough to get taken advantage of it’s strictly their own fault. After all, it’s “survival of the fittest,” that’s the way the world works. And if you wanted proof of the legitimacy of what he thought about himself, you only had to look at the money, power and prestige he’d already managed to secure. After all, as he frequently boasted: “if you can back it up, it ain’t braggin’.”
After living with Mark for 7 years, “Evelyn” had become more than a little weary. She’d done her best to forgive him for his episodes of infidelity. After all, as he insisted many times, it was “just sex” and he was a man with strong drives and needs. But lately he’d been showing so little interest in her and in their relationship that she was beginning to feel invisible, so she cajoled him into coming to at least one therapy session so they could work on “communication issues.” Only once had she thought about leaving, but she’d already put her career on hold to provide Mark with the support he needed for his business ventures. Plus, the lifestyle they enjoyed was more comfortable than she’d ever dreamed possible for such a young couple and she wasn’t keen on giving that up. But she hated feeling as empty and unfulfilled in her relationship, and finding it difficult to believe that there wasn’t something much more between them in the early days, she was determined to get “the magic back” and hoped therapy could help.
“I guess you could say I’m here because I told her I’d come,” Mark announced as our meeting began. “I don’t really see the need for it, but if it will make her happy, I guess I can deal with it, ” he proclaimed. Evelyn stated that her main concern was that he didn’t seem to show much care for her anymore and this was making her feel emotionally abandoned and alone. Mark’s retort was for a person who “had been given everything,” especially in the way of material comforts – and by the way, thanks only to him – Evelyn could certainly be seen as “one ungrateful bitch.” How the comment stung Evelyn was obvious from her nonverbal response and the tears that instantly welled up in her eyes. But then she began musing out loud (mentioning to me all the possibilities she’d considered). Maybe Mark had a “fear of intimacy.” Maybe he’d been deeply hurt in the past and this was his way of dealing with it. Maybe he had “issues with women” because of something a woman did to him. He must be wounded, right? Maybe he even had a sexual “addiction” (she’d read about this in a book). Why else would he act like that?
What would unfold before that fateful session was over was that even though the things Evelyn speculated about can indeed sometimes account for the kind of behavior Mark displayed, in his case, this was certainly not the case. Mark didn’t really need anyone else, so he never felt the need to take anyone else or their feelings into consideration. Mark had all he needed in himself. His narcissism was the very definition of pathological self-love. And it was not a “neurotic” compensation for anything, it was just what it was. Mark loved himself and no one else. True, he had desires that from time to time required others to play a role in fulfilling – like for sex and for image-enhancement (and he’d already proven his ample ability to secure “arm candy” when necessity dictated) – but he didn’t really need anyone, nor did he particularly care about anyone – that is, anyone other than himself. And he just didn’t understand why someone who had all he’d given Evelyn simply wouldn’t show their gratitude by just not placing demands on him and gratefully attending to his needs when necessary. Mark’s narcissism was truly of the malignant variety, and because malignant narcissism is at the heart of psychopathy (again, see: Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy), despite the absence of other typical features of psychopathy, he would prove to be one of the more psychopathic individuals I’ve come across. He was heartless (i.e. devoid of empathy capacity) and as a result had no remorse. And he had used Evelyn, even from the beginning, although it would take awhile before she realized just how badly.
Evelyn would learn all too quickly how expendable she was, and would also learn how utterly useless (some would even say inappropriate or perhaps even harmful) “therapy” is when someone is as lacking in empathy capacity and as pathologically self-centered as Mark is. She would also learn the hard way just what her real value had been to him all along. She would pay for being so “demanding” by being left pretty much high and dry (Mark had the moxie shield his ample assets very well) and it would take Mark no time at all to find her replacement. And for a while she would unfortunately beat herself up over the fool she knew she’d been played for. Mark always said that everyone gets just what they deserve, and just as she had done on so many other occasions, she believed him.
I’ll have more to say on this case in the wrap-up article next week.
Character Matters on Sunday at 7 pm EDT (6 pm Central and 4 pm Pacific) was scheduled to be a live program but due to some unforeseen circumstances, it will instead be a rebroadcast of an earlier program, so I won’t be able to take your calls. We’ll be back live on the 21st.