By far the most frequent question I’m asked has to do how disturbed characters came to be the way they are. The following (edited) inquiry I received is typical of those searching for understanding:
I simply don’t understand most of the behaviors I see out of this guy. He doesn’t seem to have the same sense of how to get along in the world that most of the people I know figured out a long time ago. And while I’ve seen some strange behaviors in my day, I could never even imagine some of the things I’ve seen him do. What’s worse, he does them without any compunction whatsoever.
I always find myself asking how a person gets to be this way. Sometimes I think he must have been abused as a child. Perhaps he can’t love the way most people love because he doesn’t have any familiarity with love. Maybe no one showed it to him. I know his parents divorced when he was young. Perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know. But it just seems like no matter how hard I try to explain things to him, he just doesn’t get it. I’ve done my best to understand, but to tell you the truth, I’m simply worn out from trying. It just doesn’t make any sense.
What makes a person become this way? Can they ever change?
The notion that disturbed characters must have experienced abuse, trauma, or neglect as children has been around for a long time. But ample research indicates that although many disturbed characters report traumatic experiences, the veracity of those reports with respect to is often suspect. There’s also abundant evidence that a person can develop a markedly impaired character even when raised in the most benign, nurturing environment. Moreover, many individuals who come from difficult backgrounds somehow seem to be able to develop admirable character. So, there is never a simple answer to this question. Both an individual’s innate predispositions and their environment contribute to the shaping of their character. The most important thing to remember, however, is when you strive too hard to “understand” a person’s behavior, you can often inadvertently excuse it.
Most people really ask this question because they are so unnerved by the behavior pattern of the disturbed character in their life. And it’s even more distressing to entertain the notions that some people are simply radically different from what we might perceive as “normal” and are also resistant to changing their style of coping. As I assert in both my books, In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, “they already see (i.e. know that their behavior is not what others consider appropriate) but simply disagree (i.e. prefer a style of coping that while offensive to others is acceptable to them).” What’s more, it doesn’t really matter why they act the way they do. What really matters is that anyone who wants to have an empowered relationship with them must enforce strict boundaries, limits, and expectations with respect to behavior. And whether a disturbed character can or will change depends upon a number of factors. But to develop any motivation to change their dysfunctional pattern, it simply has to stop working for them. As long as others tolerate or try incessantly to be understanding, the disturbed character will keep on doing what they’ve always done.
So remember, don’t try too hard to understand. Just set reasonable expectations and limits. And accept the fact that people are different and some folks really have to be held accountable because they spend so little effort of their own to appropriately manage their behavior. And don’t count on them changing either. Let time and consistency be your guides. Remember, they already “get it.” And if they really mean to change you’ll know it by a consistent, self-directed effort on their part.