Most folks know the feeling of shame so well, they can hardly understand that character-impaired people may have different underlying motives for their behavior. Erroneous notions about human nature may make sense in the context of ‘neurotic’ personalities, but when trying to understand character-impairment they leave us vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.
Just recently, I received an email from a woman who had come to realize that the person she’d lived with for many years was the archetypal character I describe in my book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Yet she was still finding it difficult to shed some notions about human nature that might even have contributed to the deception to which she had fallen prey. This email was so similar to so many others I have received over the years that I thought it worth sharing (edited) and commenting upon:
Dr. Simon, I love your work, but I have to disagree with what you say concerning ‘shame’ and disturbed characters. If they really felt no shame like you say, why would they go through so much trouble to disguise their real personality and pretend to be so ‘wonderful’ to others?
I realize now that I lived with a disturbed character for 22 years. He was the covert type you describe. When I finally caught him on some of his behaviour and exposed him for the person he really is, he became more overtly aggressive, vicious and vindictive than I can tell you. And if anyone ever criticized him, even a little, he would brush them out of his life. You were not allowed to shame him in any way! Doesn’t that mean he was extra-sensitive to shame?
I worked in a prison for 15 years and remember one prisoner always telling me he was a good guy and would not be incarcerated if it weren’t for the police. Of course, the fact that he committed armed robbery in a store was not even an issue in his mind. I remember how ridiculous his mindset was. But it turned out that my husband was just this kind of guy. He kept up a good pretence, but all the while was doing horrible things. The only thing that really mattered to him was that he did not get caught! Once I saw his game, I ended his comfortable life by not providing for him anymore. He tried all the tactics in your book, and even though I learned how to recognize them all, I still could not confront him face-on. I finally decided to get out just to save my life and sanity.
It’s natural for decent folks to find some things unimaginable. It’s also common for us to use our own experience and self-reflections to conjecture what the underlying motives of someone else might be when they do things that perplex us. We know how ashamed of ourselves we might feel if a thoughtless or insensitive remark we made about someone somehow got back to them. We might deny we ever made the remark, or put as positive a ‘spin’ as we could on it, as a means of damage control. It’s natural, therefore, that when we see someone else engaged in behavior similar to what we did (i.e. engaging in denial or ‘distorting’ reality), to presume that their motivation for doing so is the same as ours would have been.
Here’s how I responded to the email:
You ask a great question, namely ‘why else’ other than shame would someone go to great lengths to conceal their real nature.
First, it’s important to remember that character disturbance is a dimension of personality that exists along a continuum. So, the extent to which someone is shame-deficient varies from those with some degree of it to those who totally lack the capacity for it.
But to answer your question more directly, there are literally hundreds of reasons why someone would disguise their real personality or intentions besides being ashamed of who they are. And the fact that people who actually have the capacity for shame and guilt have a hard time imagining what those hundreds of other possibilities might be is a testament to their own good character. It is also, however, the most important reason they sometimes get taken in. Let me illustrate with just one example: Let’s say a personal finance con artist wants you to contribute to his Ponzi scheme. The reason he will come across as caring about your welfare, appear genteel, or promote the notion that others view him as ‘wonderful’ or trustworthy is not because he’s ashamed of who he really is (that would actually deter him from going after you!), but rather because he wants you to drop any possible resistance or hesitancy you might have and cooperate with his scheme. If he tells you who he really is and what he’s up to, you wouldn’t go along. He’s not ashamed, he’s simply determined to get the better of you and has a method to do so.
Just remember, it’s bad enough that we sometimes realize only after-the-fact that people aren’t who they claim to be; it’s even more insidious that so many of us have bought into misleading notions about why people do the things they do that set us up to be victimized.
I’m not saying all disturbed characters are completely shameless and heartless. There’s a continuum. But I am saying they’re all shame- and guilt-deficient to some degree (that’s exactly what distinguishes them from ‘neurotics’), so it’s very dangerous to entertain the kinds of assumptions we’ve commonly held about why they sometimes engage in pretense. Playing the game of ‘impression management’ for self-serving and exploitative purposes is not the same as trying to cover up a sense of shame. Even embarrassment (or displeasure) at being exposed is not the same as shame (I explain this in my book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]). Shame is the “I just couldn’t live with myself” kind of sentiment that keeps a person from deliberately doing the unthinkable. The most revealing sign of a decent character is the trouble they might have even imagining how someone could not experience the same shame or guilt that they themselves would experience doing certain things. But the inability to accept the fact that different personalities are very different from one another, especially on key dimensions and attributes of character, is the main reason good folks get taken in and ill-intended folks are emboldened and enabled in their dysfunctional styles.
By the way, I too have a good deal of experience working within prisons. It’s there that I learned the difference between upset upon exposure and genuine shame, and I came to some strong opinions about the recent research on shame. (All the research says that shame is bad, period; teach folks only to feel bad about the acts they’ve done, i.e., to have guilt, and never let them experience shame, i.e., feeling bad about who they are, because that’s detrimental to their self-esteem — at least that’s what the research says.) But TO A PERSON the few prisoners out of the hundreds I worked with who truly turned their lives around did so not because they felt badly about what they had done (many felt badly almost every time but still kept on doing it), but rather because they came to a point where they could no longer live with the person they’d become. In the end it was shame, not guilt, that saved them. So, no matter what the research says, I remain a big fan of healthy shame. And it’s a real shame so many disturbed characters have so little of it.
In Character Disturbance I give some vivid, illustrative examples based on real cases that attest to the inherent danger in hanging onto commonly held but erroneous notions about human nature that traditional psychology has promoted as gospel. One of the examples involved a young man who had forcefully sexually assaulted his younger sister. In a therapy session, when he began talking about the assault, he began sobbing so hard my co-therapist was tempted to stop the session. Being young and naive, both of us assumed he was feeling more shame than he could bear. He must be full of regret and remorse. Why else would he be sobbing? Besides, we were taught: underneath it all, and behind all their ‘defenses,’ people harbor shame and guilt about the bad things they’ve done. Give them a safe atmosphere to talk about it, and give them reason to let their defenses down, and their underlying emotions will gush forth. We thought that’s what we were witnessing. But did we ever turn out to be WRONG! I don’t think it appropriate to provide the details that would illustrate the sad and perverse true reason for this person’s tears; even some who have read about this case in the book have found it hard to believe. Suffice it to say that when my fellow therapist and I recovered from our shock of learning the truth of what was behind the tears, we began to seriously question a lot of the assumptions under which we operated. Today, I regard this and other tragic but similar circumstances as gifts that opened my eyes.
Our preconceptions about human nature, most of which have been endorsed or promoted by traditional psychological schools of thought, are actually our worst enemies when it comes to understanding the disturbed characters among us. It’s hard enough to ‘get it’ in the first place when it comes to them. But it’s even harder when we cling to notions that are for the most part correct when it comes to ‘neurotics,’ but are way off base when it comes to understanding the character-impaired. And the more serious the character disturbance is, the less the traditional rules apply.
We get victimized for many reasons. The fact that we don’t trust our gut instincts is one factor. And the fact that disturbed characters are often very skilled at their tactics of manipulation and impression management is another factor. But we also get victimized because our well-meant but nonetheless erroneous perspectives make us inordinately and unnecessarily vulnerable. Hopefully, this post will help some out there whose preconceptions have made them vulnerable in the past become less vulnerable to future abuse or exploitation.