What Made Them This Way?: Understanding Disturbed Characters

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.

22 thoughts on “What Made Them This Way?: Understanding Disturbed Characters

  1. Dr. Simon, have there been any long-term studies done yet whether disturbed characters and/or psychopaths pass these traits to their offspring? I am concerned that I have introduced what I consider to be a possible genetic defect into my family line by marrying one of these. Of two children, both raised in identical circumstances, with a home-schooled focus on faith and character, one has a much greater degree of empathy and character than the other, who exhibits signs of the the lack of empathy/character of the man I married.

    1. There’s no definitive evidence with respect to passed on traits. There are studies of identical twins reared apart that suggest at least a significant genetic component to antisocial personality development. And there is recent evidence suggesting a biological basis and unique brain functioning in psychopathy. But there is no firm evidence that certain traits are mostly passed down. For the most part, it’s a combination of biological predispositions and environmental factors that impact personality development, though from my experience, it appears that whether environment or nature plays the greater role varies from person to person. Regardless, human beings are unique among all creatures in their ability to learn new things and to modify their behavior, even when so doing goes against natural predispositions.

      1. Thank-you for this information, and especially for this reminder, which offers hope:
        “human beings are unique among all creatures in their ability to learn new things and to modify their behavior, even when so doing goes against natural predispositions.”

      2. I’m a 18 year old girl I was diagnosed with mentally disturbed and I may not be a scientist but I’ve been in and out of foster home and I do believe it has to do with the environment the child was raised around and trauma

  2. What is the best way to handle a relationship with someone of this kind of problem. I recommended therapy on his own as I started my own after we had therapy together. I feel like removing myself in the relationship and start a new, but I feel guilty…and we have projects to work together for. I do not want repeated negative behaviors anymore and I am ready to move on. How do I let him go without the guilt and feel self empowered? and get the help he needs?

  3. I ended a 16 year marriage to a Character disordered spouse. After 2 years of wasted energy trying to “understand ” this, I see that it just “is”. Traditional therapy did not help and actually provided a forum for more manipulation. With the help of books ( like Dr. Simon’s) and speaking with other survivors, I feel my focus is finally where it should be. The marriage left me very shell shocked.

  4. I recently separated from my character-disordered spouse of 36 years. I finally stopped believing all the excuses and believed the behavior instead. Dr. Simon’s books are amazing. My spouse exhibited so many behaviors that were deeply troubling, but didn’t seem to be related to one another until I read the books. It was like the puzzle pieces fell into place as I read. Much damage was done over the years by Christian counselors who minimized his behaviors and pushed “forgiveness.” I am doing much better now, but it’s still hard to be judged as wrong for leaving by other people who have no idea. Thank you, Dr. Simon, for your work. It is critically important for our times.

    1. Thank you, Dianna, for the kind words. And to overcome the sting of wrong judgment, be sure to give yourself some internal validation as often as you can!

    2. I also encountered this with strongly religious / spiritual counsellors, Christian and otherwise. Much damage was done by these counsellors who minimized the behavior of my parents (mother NPD, father C-PTSD). My brother displays all the behaviors associated with NPD and might be a psychopath. He’s a snake in a business suit. He has a long standing problem with alcohol (common with character disordered people) and other addictions. We grew up in a highly dysfunctional household. He was the Golden Child and I was the Scapegoat.

      I was raised as a God Fearing Fundamentalist Christian. An important component of my healing was to come to terms with my mothers aberrant understanding of Christianity. As part of my healing, I took time and engaged in a serious study of Christianity, it’s beliefs, controversies and practices. I found the topic of Christian forgiveness troubling–because I had been told that I had to forgive my abusers.

      The most helpful and healing Bible study topic I ever did was to explore the nature of nature of evil and how are we supposed to act in the face of it. I found Luke 17:3 Ministries web site very helpful. The language used in this web site is very much conservative / evangelical Protestant Christian. The Bible quotes are from the King James Version / New King James Version. Some people who have come from a situation where a partner or parent claimed to be Christian and selectively used Bible verses as part of their abuse tactics might find that this site might be triggering. They make a very strong case that we are NOT supposed to forgive the wicked (they know what they are doing is wrong and do it anyway. They can stop if they want to), but we are supposed to disassociate ourselves from them if at all possible. are Link: http://www.luke173ministries.org/

      I wish more Christian pastors would give sermons on the topic of “What is Wickedness?” and “How, as Christians, are we supposed to respond to the wicked when we encounter them?” I have a real problem with pastors who just talk about God’s Love without talking about God’s response to wickedness. I think many are afraid about being branded a Fire and Brimstone Preacher, when they are actually giving out sage advise.

  5. I am just now ending a relationship, if one can call it that, with a character disordered man. What a shock to discover these traits in the first place but the disentanglement has been difficult . I have learned from you how these individuals do recognize their behaviour as abnormal which fits with things he has said and this was a revelation to me. Somehow it makes the betrayal seem worse to me. However I am now ready to move on in spite of an initial platonic friendship of more than 20 years which recently became more than that. I know we cannot return to such a friendship now so will go on without him. Thankyou Dr Simon.

  6. Hello Dr. Simon,
    I have had traumatic experiences involving disturbed characters, as a child it was my mom, and her brother. As an adult it was a rapist. Your books are particularly helpful for individuals with trauma experiences because it help them protect themselves from harm and it also helps them to heal.
    It validates their pain. And it restores their confidence in themselves.

    I also want to say that the frustration of many other trauma victims is that some therapist, quite a number of them actually do not empower victims of trauma instead they try to keep the victim in their place. It always feels as if the goal is to create some degree of dependency in that setting. And so many victims do not walk away feeling empowered they feel dependent. Your book offer much more, because victims need an opportunity to help themselves in proactive ways.

    1. Vasti,

      My heart goes out to you. When we are little our parents are suppose to be our first examples of trust. The world out there is f#%^ed up. A child needs to know they can turn to
      their parents for unconditional support. She probably said she put food on the table, a roof over your head and clothes on your back. But she “missed the boat” when it came to intrinsic support. Ex: sensitivity, compassion, unconditional love, etc. Not having those can last a lifetime without the proper help. I’m sorry that your experience with a therapist was awful. They are not all like that. I bet your mom and uncle would’ve blamed you for being raped. Just be reassured NO ONE ELSE DOES. Did you press charges? Let me try to empower you by encouraging you to press charges.

  7. Dr. Simon,

    Can a person. who grew up spoiled and doted over, develop poor character? Parents never set appropriate limits.
    Possibly looking the other way if he had girls in his bedroom, sending out the message “just go for it.” He learned to charm and manipulate to reach his end result.

    1. Absolutely! The old notion was that people only turned out badly because bad things happened to them. But the truth is that it’s just as easy to turn out self-centered, self-indulgent, unprincipled, etc. when base behavior is either overlooked, inadvertently “enabled,” condoned, etc. There really is such a thing as being “spoiled rotten,” e.g., excessively doted over, indulged, inadequately disciplined, etc., and the end result sometimes is a superficially charming yet significantly character-deficient individual.

      1. And Dr.Simon, I would add that sometimes the parent actually contributes to the poor character of the child or “child” in Spathtards case, because it suits THEM in some way to indulge the poor character of their offspring. They “buy” their own children’s loyality by allowing and even encouraging their character defects.

      2. Can a person who was self centered, manipulative, narcissistic, self indulgent, character defective
        change? if he says,”I’m not like that anymore”. Can a person “grow” a conscience? Would it require intensive therapy? Are these personality traits that are ingrained?

        1. Hi Lorelei, I think if you continue to explore Dr. Simon’s articles on this site you will gain a lot of insight and an answer to your question but the short answer is that it depends on many factors including age, desire, motivation internally and externally, etc. Adults need a really good reason to Chang something about themselves that they think is “ok” just the way it is and these types usually see that the problem is you and not them even if the say something to make you think otherwise.
          The proof is in the pudding, real and significant change can be seen and measured.

          1. In other words, I would not take his word for it……I’m guessing that you have taken his word for a lot of things up to this point which is why you are here. 😉

          2. Dr. Simon,

            Is the old behavior dormant, suppressed? If he is over 50, will it re-surface over time. Arrogance is so hard to hide.

          3. The full answer is really quite complicated, Lorelei, but the short answer is this: No behavior is ever really “unlearned,” but rather gradually “extinguished” or “suppressed.” That means “spontaneous recovery” or re-emergence of old behavior is always possible, and more likely in times when certain conditions are present. A person has to be fairly committed to change to spot and quickly correct old, bad habits when they surface again.

  8. As Dr. Simon said, “As long as others tolerate or try incessantly to be understanding, the disturbed character will keep on doing what they’ve always done.”

    It’s frustrating to watch the tolerance others have of my DC ex-brother’s behavior, but it’s normal empathy that propels it. My core belief is; if someone makes me feel bad about myself then they are trespassing and I ask them to leave.

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