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.
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.