The Continuum of Character Disturbance – Part 2

In my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome, I make the point that disturbances of character exist along a continuum (for more on the spectrum of character disturbance also see the article: Character Disturbance Exists Along A Continuum) with folks varying widely with respect to how seriously impaired (or possibly “disordered”) they are in character and the degree to which there is some degree of “neurosis” in their makeup as opposed to pure character pathology.  Fortunately, individuals relatively devoid of all neurosis and who are therefore only severely character disordered are rare.  However, given the sociocultural “zeitgeist” or atmosphere of our times, character disturbance of some significant degree is unfortunately quite widespread, negatively impacting relationships and affecting just about every aspect of our lives. And pathological levels of character disturbance are certainly more prevalent than truly pathological levels of “neurosis.” Gone are the days when folks struggled with so much unreasonable guilt or shame or experienced emotional turmoil over their basic instincts so severe yet so repressed that they made themselves sick  (with such bizarre maladies as psychosomatic “blindness” and “paralysis”) with worry. In times past, mental health professionals spent most of their time dealing with such cases and other milder expressions of “neurosis.” But in recent years professionals increasingly find themselves dealing with some degree of character disturbance.

It can be particularly challenging to discern just where someone lies on the character disturbance spectrum.  All too often in troubled relationships the extent of a person’s character disturbance only becomes evident long after much damage has already been done. But because over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals on the CD spectrum, I’ve learned some fairly reliable ways to better recognize the indicators and by sharing some stories derived from that experience, you might also find it a bit easier to understand what to watch out for.  What follows below is one of those stories.

“Jack” (As always, events, names, details, and any other potentially identifying information in the following vignette have been altered to preserve anonymity) was your archetypal narcissist.  And even though three different mental health professionals were hesitant to formally assign the “disorder” label to his pathology (Many folks, including professionals, view such a label as necessarily implying hopelessness as far as treatment is concerned and therefore resist “stigmatizing” folks who function relatively well at least in some spheres of their lives with such a personality disorder diagnosis), if Jack didn’t qualify for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) diagnosis, then no one did (Of course, as many of you know, the disorder is no longer recognized as a distinct and reliably identifiable personality disorder in the official diagnostic and classification manual of the American Psychiatric Association – and you can learn more about this in the articles Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love and Big Changes Coming for Psychiatric Diagnoses). In fact, Jack’s life was a perfect example of a “disordered” personality pattern, with his relationships at work, at home, and in the larger community all significantly negatively impacted by his extreme egocentrism. grandiosity, and sense of entitlement.

When I first met Jack, I could see how others might be initially impressed or charmed but I quickly found myself having a highly negative gut reaction.  “Just who does this guy think he is?,” I found myself musing.  “Does he not hear himself?,” I wondered.  He was a successful business man to be sure.  But savior of the entire universe, I think not.  Still, that’s the way he came across – as God’s perfect gift to humankind.  I was more than taken aback.  Now Jack had only come to see me because he had to do so.  He’d gotten himself in some trouble because of his presumptuous behavior with a female co-worker and as part of his plea deal on the sexual harassment charges filed against him, he’d been ordered to get counseling. Now as readers of my books know, narcissists, especially in our time, tend to lie far more on the purely character disturbed versus “neurotic” side of the CD-Neurosis spectrum. Most narcissists really do think they’re all that, aren’t compensating for insecurities when they demand adulation from others, and know exactly what they do and why.  As I’ve stated many times at workshops, for the CD narcissist, it’s not that they’re unaware, it’s that they simply don’t care (especially about what others think). So whenever I’m dealing with a narcissist, I’m always looking for the possibility they have at least some degree of neurosis because that speaks to a much better prognosis.  Fortunately, it turned out that there was indeed some neurosis in Jack and it manifested in the telltale ways it typically does, once his substantial “defensive armor” was pierced, which, I must say, took a bit of doing.

Jack would have to be made to retell his implausible version of the events leading his legal difficulties many times before anything resembling a plausible true account would emerge. And for Jack to finally render the truth, he’d have to stop minimizing, projecting blame, and denying the substance of his wrongdoing.  When, however, to my great surprise he did, something truly unexpected (but indicative of a better prognosis) happened:  he broke down.  In fact, he sobbed for what seemed like hours.  And after he more fully realized just what he had done and the damage it had caused his victim, he demonstrated something else most more character-impaired narcissists don’t:  a commitment to changing both the ways in which he did and looked at things and who he was as a person.  Jack would work actively on himself and his character for years beyond the requirements of his plea deal.  That’s the way it is when there’s enough conscience in someone and they’ve overcome the truly neurotic denial (for more on the nature of denial the chapter on manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing, the section on the nature of denial in Character Disturbance and the articles:   Denial – What It Is And Isn’tDenial – Manipulation Tactic 4, “Denial” Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1, and Traditional Therapy Biases and Denial) they’ve been in for years. “Jack’s” story is instructive in many other ways, which is why I’ll have much more to say about him and the things that can help you determine where someone lies on the neurosis vs. CD continuum in next week’s article. Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday at 7 pm EDT (6pm CDT and 4pm PDT), so I can take your calls.  Perhaps you’ll have a story to share about a narcissist or some questions to ask about how to better tell where one of these types might lie on the spectrum of character disturbance. Advance Registration information for the webinar scheduled for September will be posted on this site in the next few weeks.

6 thoughts on “The Continuum of Character Disturbance – Part 2

  1. Dr Simon this is a very helpful post. I was wondering when you say Jack broke down and would sob for hours how you can tell that sobbing is genuine? If a CD person has all the symptoms of NPD plus others but then says they believe something is wrong with them, when they “SAY” they have guilt but for only some wrongdoings but believe they can’t change because it is in them. Is that a CD who has come to a realisation or one still playing a game, how can you know for sure?

    1. Great question, Tori, and I’ll be talking more about this very thing in next week’s post. I’ve seen plenty of really CD folks who were capable of turning on the waterworks with out any real sorrow for anyone but themselves, and I have some posts on that, too. What I mention in Jack’s story that means more than the fact that he sobbed is that he matched the apparent sorrow with a commitment to change – and it’s in the willingness to accept that critical burden that you can really judge someone’s sincerity, not in their tears.

  2. Dr Simon, on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 10 (severely), how narcissistic would you rate “Jack” compared to someone whom you regard to have healthy narcissism? In other words, where would you put Jack on the narcissism continuum?

    1. I’m not so sure that by accepted definition, there’s any such thing a “healthy narcissism.” Perhaps you’re meaning healthy self-confidence or something like that. In “Jack’s” case, his overall self-concept was fairly impaired and rooted in many of the things I talk about in my books that fuel an imbalanced sense of self-worth. I’d rate his “healthy” sense of self-worth fairly low, perhaps a “4”.

  3. My narsister has very little real confidence. I have always felt that her extreme reliance on creating an impression and her internal void is based around a very damaged sense of her own intrinsic value. I think that self image is kind of a consensus construct. The individual meshes what they know about themselves together with how they feel they appear to others. Narcissists seem to be lacking, to some degree, a strong subjective input, or what they know about themselves, and seem to be overly reliant on,,or simply favor a self image based on how others see them. It’s a terrible way to live and I don’t know if she can change it. She has been this way for as long as I can remember. She has neither the desire to change nor the tools to change. She is the most confounding, blank human being I have ever known.

  4. Maybe some of you know of this website but I just started looking over some of the posts and comments and so much rings a bell!!

    One of the commenters, in a post about boundaries (, described an incident with her sister that had me nodding my head, “yup, bro is just like that; yup, bro acts just like that.” How eerily, sadly similar it all is.

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