Understanding and dealing effectively with character disturbance is challenging for some very good reasons. One reason is that the concept itself is poorly understood. For example, some equate the concept of character with personality. But character is actually a specific dimension of personality, the dimension that reflects a person’s ethics and level of virtue. And to really understand character as well as the various disturbances of character, you have to be able to sort out those aspects of an individual’s personality that most accurately reflect the nature, solidity, and quality of their character.
Another reason it’s hard to understand the nature of character and character disturbance is the still substantial influence of traditional psychology paradigms. Sigmund Freud taught us to view both personality and character as a “mask” worn by folks laboring under the scars of past trauma and dealing with unconscious emotional conflicts. And the traditional perspectives that emanated from Freud and his followers had most of us viewing everybody as “neurotic,” struggling with fears and insecurities, and believing that the behaviors they displayed that put us off were, underneath it all, unconscious attempts to reduce anxiety, heal past wounds, and ease emotional pain. But while neurosis is in fact a genuine phenomenon, it’s nowhere near as prevalent or significant a problem that it was in the age when traditional paradigms were developed. And it’s crucial that we don’t let the biases emanating from traditional perspectives cloud our judgments about character (you can find a most chilling example that emphasizes this point in a prior post: Common Assumptions about Human Nature Can Disadvantage Us). It’s also important to recognize that while there might be some degree of neurosis in most of us, each individual falls somewhere along a continuum of being mostly neurotic to being primarily disturbed in character.
Perhaps the major reason it’s been so hard to really understand and deal with character disturbance is because for a long time its not been politically correct to frame so many of our emotional and behavioral problems as stemming from issues of “character.” This situation might be slowly changing, but it’s still a problem. All too many times, character pathology is framed as something else that seems more “palatable” to the politically-correct mind. We might frame the irresponsible sexual behavior of the impaired character as an “addiction.” We also might view the poor impulse control of the undisciplined character as necessarily the result of ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, or some kind of “chemical imbalance.” And as is the case with so many of the various psychiatric labels we apply these days, many folks perceive that if a person has one of the commonly diagnosed conditions, it means that their the victim of disease processes beyond their power to control, thus making them ill and in need of help as opposed to being impaired in character and in need of corrective guidance.Now I’m not saying that there aren’t genuine mental health illnesses out there. Unfortunately, there are. And I’ve encountered and treated them first hand. But I am saying that all too many times political, practical, and other biases prevent us from recognizing character pathology for what it really is and dealing with it appropriately. Fortunately, the political climate is beginning to change, however, and character disturbance is slowly being recognized for the problem it has become.
Not too long ago, I was asked to consult on a case in which the presenting issue was an instance of infidelity on the part of her husband that was eating away at a woman’s heart. He had claimed the “affair” occurred at a time in his life when he was feeling insecure, unappreciated, and taken for granted both at work and at home and succumbed to a moment of weakness. He pointed out that the family physician put him on medication, thinking his problems were likely the result of depression. It all seemed a plausible scenario, and the couple were in counseling together for months trying to repair damage and re-establish trust. The therapist, operating from a traditional perspective, had been working with the couple on various issues: the husband’s obvious low-self esteem probably responsible for his need for approval and vulnerability to a stranger woman who offered him the regard for which he hungered, and the wife’s emotional distance from the husband that must have also contributed to this hunger. But once I began to carefully examine the facts, it became clear that the wife’s increasing “emotional distance” from her husband was an understandable gut response his longstanding pattern of covert domination, control, exploitation, and abuse during their marriage, despite his capacity to appear charming and likable to others. And when the evidence finally surfaced that he’d actually been cheating on his wife for years, with multiple partners, even since the earliest days of their marriage, and long before any of the circumstances he claimed had made him “vulnerable,” and it also became clear that he exhibited the the same pattern of use, abuse, exploitation, and eventual discard with all of his cheating partners, this woman could only feel totally betrayed and manipulated. To add insult to injury, she’d spent months in therapy wasting precious time and money trying to keep hope alive only to realize that the therapist had also been conned. In the end, she ended up wary of just about everyone and everything. And because she hadn’t yet come to understand the true nature of character disturbance and how the kinds of folks I describe in In Sheep’s Clothingmanage to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes for years, she had even lost confidence in herself. About the only good things that came out of the consultation on this case are that the therapist received a much-needed wake-up call, and the woman who was stuck in this abusive relationship for years was finally able to cut her losses.
I’ve said it many times, character disturbance is the defining phenomenon of our age (Character Disturbance – Parkhurst Brothers 2010). And as I have pointed out in some prior posts (see: Character Spectrum Disorders) character disturbances exist along a spectrum with some individuals being more fully and severely impaired or even disordered than others. Even when it’s perceived correctly, character disturbance is very hard to address, especially within a therapeutic context.