The Character Disturbance Spectrum

Character disturbance exists along a spectrum of severity. Some folks have only a few problematic traits in their character makeup. They may even possess a few “neurotic” features.  That is, they might have a fairly decent conscience and struggle with inner conflicts and insecurities. But other folks don’t have good consciences.  And as a result they don’t get perturbed about the hurtful things they do.  So, how do you tell where someone is on the spectrum? That’s always best revealed in their pattern of behavior.

The Neurosis-Character Disturbance Spectrum

Character disturbance actually exists along two spectra. One spectrum reflects the degree to which a person is purely character disturbed as opposed to having some degree of neurosis. We define character disturbance as the relative absence of neurosis. And neurosis, simply stated, is the ability to experience inner anguish and anxiety as a result of guilt and shame (i.e. conscience). So, the less neurotic someone is and the more character disturbed they are, the more problems they’re likely to bring to a relationship.

A person’s character disturbance can also rise to the level of what’s been called a disorder. Over the years, professionals have debated just how to best define a disorder of personality and/or character. We all have distinctive, preferred ways of relating to others. And those distinctive “styles” of relating define our personalities. But when our very manner of relating is in itself the source of problems, we call it a personality disturbance. A style of relating to others so rigid, so ingrained, so extreme in its manifestation, and so deviant from the norm of a culture that it severely and negatively impacts a person’s ability to function well has traditionally qualified as a disorder.

Redefining Personality and Character Disorders

Our times require that we redefine what it means to have a personality or character disorder. Character, of course, reflects the moral or ethical side of personality. And when a person’s style of relating makes them prone to crossing important social boundaries, they have a disturbance of character. But given the current cultural climate, few of these disturbances deviate all that much from the norm. Narcissism, for example, is quite commonplace. Moreover, ostentatious, confident, haughty styles of relating actually serve people well in many circumstances these days. So, by traditional definitions, it’s hard to call such styles disorders. They may be offensive to some, but they’re functional.

To better define a character disorder, we have to look at relationships. In our times, it’s rare for relationships to hold together. Marriages fail at unprecedented rates. Character disturbance plays a big role in that. And there’s a spectrum of severity in relationship impairment. That spectrum also reflects the degree of someone’s character disturbance. Shallow, empathy-devoid, exploitative relationships reliably signal someone’s disordered character. Disordered characters use and abuse, and sometimes without compunction. They don’t have enough conscience to care enough about who they hurt or how badly.

Next week we’ll examine some stories of troubled relationships. Those stories should better illustrate the spectrum of character disturbance and the importance of character’s impact on a relationship.

Closing Comments

Character Matters will air live Sunday May 7, 2017 at 7 pm EDT (6 pm CDT and 4 pm PDT). Join the discussion at (501) 258-8326. As always, thanks so much for recommending my books and the articles on this blog.


28 thoughts on “The Character Disturbance Spectrum

  1. Thinking about it on a spectrum makes good sense. If character disorder is about how one gets their wants but also about what those wants are. That to is a spectrum going all the way from getting accolades from those about you to wanting to rule the world. I wonder if the severity of the traits matches the grandiosity of the wants, or whether they are independent. Maybe a man wants sex with multiple people and he could just cheat on his wife or he could rape someone. So perhaps they are not linked. But perhaps the bigger the wants the more the tactics necessarily become ever more disturbed.
    Just trying to sort this out in my personal life and in the world around me. But it seems that it helps to try figure out just what is it this disordered character wants to get with their tactics. I am finding in thinking about the people in my life that it may not be what it appears to be on the surface. Does a person want control for controls sake, or perhaps they want control as a way to gain status. Maybe we don’t need to know but I don’t see some of them giving up their tactics if they don’t give up unreasonable wants. Am I making any sense?

    1. Kacey,

      Probably the degree of disorder could best be identified by how low the perpetrator is willing to stoop to achieve what he wants. And then, sometimes what they want, in and of itself, is the act of domination for its sake alone. The handsome man who could have any woman he wants but rapes women may not be able to achieve orgasm any other way …or…the power is the means AND the end for them. Does this make any sense?

      1. Lisa, that makes good sense, that the tactics an exploiter uses to get their ends is something that fixes their place on the order. But I do think that the nature of the wants does that as well.

        If your wants are merely to get more “stuff” with the family funds than your spouse, that is one thing. If your wants are to dominate through pain, that is another.

        Thing I don’t get about domination and control is this: We raise chickens. Hens and roosters both play dominance games, but it appears to always be to obtain something they want, better food, more mating, best roost location. I cannot tell that they dominate others for the sheer desire to dominate. My question is have some humans somehow gone to wanting to dominate as an end in itself? Or is there always something they expect to get once they have dominated or controlled someone. If domination has become and end in itself, that might fit the label “evil” and seems like it would be almost impossible to change.

        I had a preacher friend who said his family learned that instead of striving to get their wants they realized they needed to get their “wanters” fixed. I think with CD’s fixing the tactics without fixing excessive, illegal, immoral wants is not enough. We all have a right to get our basic needs met, but wants have to come in line with resources and balancing with the wants of others IMO. I think we have to address not just tactics but also the naturea of the wants. If the want is for dominance for dominance sake I am not sure how you get someone to see that is wrong and how to get them to let go. If dominance in say a marriage is only about getting more of your other wants met (a bigger piece of the financial pie) it seems that is probably easier to get someone to deal with.

        Per Dr. Simon we know that to blame the desire to dominate on some pain in their past, some deep insecurity, is just not valid. But then why? To use it fill other wants? Or does dominance have some thrill of its own for these people? Another way of saying it is that dominance itself may just be tactic for some to get what they want, but for others it may be an end in itself, not the tactic but the thing they want. I think it makes a difference. I think if you decided that dominance itself is the want, you need to get away from such a person as fast as you can, but if it is a tactic it might be amenable to change.

        1. My question is have some humans somehow gone to wanting to dominate as an end in itself?

          In my experience this is the case. Character Disordered people have a Character Disorder. They do not think in a Healthy way about either themselves or other people.

        2. Some definitely just want to dominate. Life is all about them. They cannot see other people’s needs and don’t care.

  2. In South Africa NPD is not very well understood by therapists and the effects of NPD on the people in relationships with NPD is very much not recognized as a direct result of a NPD.
    Please advise what are the best ways for a professional to diagnose NPD and other co-morbid disorders? Thank you, Olivia

  3. Wonderful and important post Dr. Simon. So many people may say that they understand that these issues reside on a continuum, yet they continue to cite those with character disorders in rather rigid black and white categories. And the whole perception is not subject to objective reference. So what seems to manifest in the area of discussion surrounding these issues is a bunch of very immature frequently character disturbed individuals pointing fingers at others who possess similar traits.

    In the last ten years there has been an avalanche of “victims” of narcissistic abuse on Youtube. And while I absolutely do believe that society has manifested cancerous levels of severely character disturbed individuals, I also believe that it’s extremely common that birds of a feather tend to flock together. Simply stated…people who possess very high levels of morality and who are in submission to the laws of God tend not to be on Youtube recounting all the ugly dynamics of their relationships with cluster B’s. I do, however, also suspect that many of these “victims” tend to reside more in the domain of the neurotic, yet the fact still remains that they themselves frequently posses a plethora of distortions which need to be corrected. The most obvious of these is blame shifting and self pity. I used to be quite a neurotic person myself . I have also taken the grand tour through the wilderness of sin and I too possess all the photo albums which are reminders of the various stages of growth in my life. So I speak from experience when I agree with Dr. Simon about recognizing the importance of the nuances of Character disturbance residing on a spectrum. Theres more than 31 flavors in the Ice cram parlor of Evil. lol C. S Lewis cites a few of the more common varieties in “The Great Divorce”.

    1. Lisa,

      You applaud Dr.Simon’s definition of continuum disorder but at the same time use terms like ‘evil’ which, to my mind, are only appropriate in extreme black and white cases.

      Agreed that some who use the megaphone of Youtube seem to be engaged in a narcissistic exercise while describing narcissism and talking ALOT about themselves. It’s ironic.

      1. Hi there,

        Yeah…I think I understand what you are saying. The word evil evil may conjure some extreme examples in the minds of different folks depending on ones frame of reference. I tend to like the Biblical examples of evil and also the works of great literature because they also tend to reside on a continuum and not often black and white. M Scott Peck, for instance, was a famous psychiatrist and he also described more subtle examples of what he described as ” evil” which he observed in his psychotherapy practice in his book “People of the Lie”. C. S Lewis described many of the more subtle forms as well. Just depends how you think of it, I guess?

        God Bless 🙂

        1. Hi Lisa,

          C.S. Lewis had a very advanced grasp of human emotion and epistemology. From that perspective he could easily describe the preconditions for evil.

          When Lewis uses the word, I can respect it, because his thinking and compassion is evident in his writing….as is Dr. Simon’s. But Peck uses the term too freely, in some of his examples. For example, he describes the root flaw in some of his cases as laziness or sloth rather than a desire to dominate and control.

          Unfortunately, the word ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ have acquired too much baggage because they are used over frequently by some who use it to serve an exclusive world view and by others who aren’t sensitive enough to know the difference between evil and stupidity, lazy indifference or garden variety insensitivity.

          These aren’t lesser evils. They simply aren’t what we should commonly regard as ‘evil.’ There is an irredeemable feature embodied in the characterization that the common jackass or rube shouldn’t be saddled with.

          Those targeted by true sadistic psychopaths or by those who are cruel and callous have every right to use the term though, IMHO.

          1. Hi LisaO,

            Thanks for responding. It’s such a great topic for discussion.

            I’m going to go with Galatians 5:9 which says ” A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” and so I take the position that we don’t need to wait until the whole lump is oozing with evil from every poor before we call it evil. I would say not identifying the the seeds of evil is precisely how the evil (indeed tyranny) blooms. In fact Dr. Simons book “In Sheeps Clothing” was so important to me because he made it clear to me that the immoral disguised motives of certain character disturbed people frequently go undetected precisely because they are not exhibiting the full range of pathology. And he points to the very issue that they *are* indeed wolves nonetheless. And he cites reasons that we should fully identify them for the wolves that they are. I would say the his book helped me SO much precisely because I was unclear on this very issue. I would say that his book helps us to see what we are all reluctant to identify which often constitute the grey areas of evil. Btw, Laziness and sloth are indeed considered evil in the Bible as they are considered sins. ( I do realize that not everyone adheres to a Biblical world view but I find it a ideal standard because of its unchanging nature . ) The word evil used to trouble me in the past because when I really began to examine concrete standards of what constitutes evil then I realized that we really are all accountable to some very detailed moral standards . This very subject has been the source of oceans of great literature and scriptural exegesis of most monotheistic religions and spiritual traditions. So I want you to know that I genuinely wasn’t citing M. Scott Peck C.S. Lewis or the Bible or world class poetry and literature as a source of prideful boasting. I’m citing those things to cross reference that fact that the issue of the subtle nuances of evil have culturally and historically never been denied.
            God Bless:-)

          2. All sin is evil & encouraged by the devil. What did Jesus say? Love God with all your heart, etc, AND love your neighbor as yourself. These people only love themselves.

    2. Lisa,
      As a victim of a covertly aggressive narcissist I want you to know that nothing can separate you from God more than living with someone who is controlling and manipulative and lacking in empathy. The first commandment is that you shall have no other Gods. These people think they are God. The second commandment is to love the lord your God with all your heart mind and soul. This requires empathy – also lacking form the disordered characters. I think that our pastor recommended the same Scott Peck book to both of us. Suddenly, my ex was putting “love is and act of will” into his writings, usually when he was doing something wrong. He left out the rest of the phrase which is “love is an act of willfully nurturing spiritual growth” thus differentiating the difference of loving your car with loving another person. Character disordered people don’t/can’t know the difference. As targets of their manipulations we have been blamed for all of their behavior for a long time. Venting and learning that you are not alone is a huge part of the recovery process. Please be gentle to people trying to recover from this poorly understood abuse. Think of it as being a victim of psychological brain rape.

      Dr. Simon – Thank you so much for your books and websites and blogs. You have helped me so much to see how to identify and deal with disordered people and realize that trying to understanding where someone was coming from was actually causing me to enable bad behavior to continue. You have changed my life for the better.

      1. Hi Debbie,

        Thanks for your sharing.

        One of the things that I am so grateful for is that the first 26 years of my life were very severe in terms of the plethora of evils that were perpetrated against me. I’m grateful for that because it offers me an deep eye witness understanding of these issues. After the first twenty six years I then had two more decades of additional case studies in the form of lots of people from all walks of life whom I encountered in my normal day to day existence. I use the word case studies because I didn’t just have relationships with people who reside on various locations of the continuum …….I also examined and dissected those relationships in an unwavering personal commitment to learn and grow from those experiences. I spent decades in deep personal reflection and research on these subjects. I really believe that God allowed so many personal and long term experiences with so many varieties of evil because he intends to use me in a capacity where nobody will be able to accuse me of not understanding . 52 years of intense scrutiny of these subjects and deeply personal accounts and long term suffering provides me with just as much credibility as anyone else who has survived many decades of trauma . But it’s also been a ministry of love in my life because it’s all been discipleship training. It’s all been used to bring me to a place of deep sensitivity and heightened ethics.

        I just wanted to share that because your comment suggesting that I be gentle implies that I am not gentle and you also seemed to assume that I have not been on the receiving end of endless varieties of trauma an abuse myself? Which I assure you is not the case .

        God Bless

  4. They don’t have enough conscience to care enough about who they hurt or how badly.

    And this is a very(if you are able) good reason to go and very much stay no contact.

    And do’nt I know it !

    No Contact –

    Poem by mark bowdidge

    You say that you care
    wishing you were here
    now that doesn’t seem to hold true
    with a world still with out you

    Panic attacks with no communication
    fearing my relocation
    all a act
    just to stab me in the back
    your not caring
    when all your doing is staring

    1. Joey,
      It is spring where I am and my lawn got away one me. In some places a foot deep. I have trees that are down, the siding needs to be redone, roofs replaced, calking, everything a mess. I am cleaning up the debris from the storm. The violent storm of rage and ruin left by the CD.

      I am not angry, I think of all we had and how it was all destroyed over what. I think in my mind, “Oh how I loved you.” I know I must go on, to stay stuck in the wreckage will only mean my spiritual death. From the wreckage I know I can soar to new heights I never imagined possible. Nonetheless, the pain remains, compartmentalized in a hi-die hole of my life’s memories.

      Joey, your poem says it all with crystal clear clarity. There is so much sadness and ultimate truth in these few verses.

      Joey, I share your pain , from me to you, my arms are hugging you with tears flowing down my face, we are all kindred spirits . Different faces, different people, different stories, we all share the tears, sadness and loss. The real agony comes from the reality, it didn’t have to be this way.

      Joey, take this as an opportunity to grow, to know yourself, your authentic true self, in doing this we are blessed. Many people never realize the opportunity we have staring us in the face, to really know ourselves. Joey, you seem to have found your path, thank you for sharing. Your words have opened many doors of thought in my mind, ones that have helped me on my journey.

      Blessings to you.

  5. Ther is one and only Dr George Simon. I will be greatful for that for the rest of my natural life.

  6. Btov, I responded to one of your last posts on prior thread. Best wishes to you! So sorry you have had so so much pain — physically and mentally.

    I look at it this way though and I don’t know if you’d agree or not. Everything we go through, as awful as it is or has been CAN be overcome. And even though things didn’t have to be that way — and I totally get why you say that — they were and or are that way.

    We are tested here on Earth. We are loved but also tested. And we can rise above anything! You will soar. You ARE soaring.

    I bet you will have your place ship shape soon! I hope you get help with it!

    1. I’m tired. I want to go home. I started out life with a narcissistic mother, proceeded to have a narcissistic husband, and now I’m living with a narcissistic daughter. I’m 69, my health is not good, I don’t have any soaring left.

  7. Painful to read. Yet, so accurate. It’s why I love your work. I feel understood.
    You experience what you write about and your supporters don’t understand and at times, don’t believe it. You ask for help from authorities and they look down on you, not believing you, like ever. Your children suffer. Your children might even become like that disordered family member. Incredibly depressing and painful.

    Yet still so nice to learn and see that this type of psychology and behavior have been identified.

    Personally, I think it’s behavior that should net a jail term and in extreme cases, which happens often, a prison sentence. It is assault and battery, emotional rape. It leaves trauma. Men, women and children.

    1. Micheal,

      I agree with you. These CD individuals willing decide to cause another harm through whatever, means nessecary to fulfill their evil desires. It is easy to get away with this type of crime as it leave no physical injuriies, busieses, aAnd its so easy to hide the emotional wounding. What cowardly slime. In every case I know of and this includes an elderly parent, it was a selfish choice to be who they were. The CD choose to hurt others and always made sure their precious feelings were the only feelings that should be considered.

      Perhaps, a penalty for these crimes against humanity the CD inflict carried a hefty penalty, society as a whole would see a dramatic turnaround. At this point I am to tired to discuss my reasoning why I feel the CDN are evil. But evil they are. The ones in my life would destroy me if they could, for whatever, reason, the Lord has blessed me and so far have not succeeded. I will say I am extremely tired of them and it is difficult to fight them on your own. I would take on more physical pain than another of those kind, they are not human.

      Be well and blessings

  8. A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling

    If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
    Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street;
    Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
    Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

    Five and twenty ponies,
    Trotting through the dark —
    Brandy for the Parson,
    Baccy for the Clerk;
    Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
    And watch the wall, my darling,
    While the Gentlemen go by!

    Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
    Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
    Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play.
    Put the brishwood back again — and they’ll be gone next day!

    If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
    If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
    If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
    If the lining’s wet and warm — don’t you ask no more!

    If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
    You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
    If they call you “pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
    Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!

    Knocks and footsteps round the house — whistles after dark —
    You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
    Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie —
    They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

    If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
    You’ll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
    With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood —
    A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!

    Five and twenty ponies,
    Trotting through the dark —
    Brandy for the Parson,
    ‘Baccy for the Clerk;
    Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie —
    Watch the wall, my darling,
    While the Gentlemen go by!

    This is a good thing to note about Keeping your Mouth Shut. When dealing with the CD. I found this out the Hard way. Pritty much all of the information about my own life came from Myself.

    They don’t have enough conscience to care enough about who they hurt or how badly.
    Keep everything precious to yourself.

    1. Indeed. It WILL be used against you.
      And never bother to confront them about their behavior; it always backfires.

  9. Indeed. It WILL be used against you.
    And never bother to confront them about their behavior; it always backfires.

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