Disturbances of Character

Almost all the principles of traditional psychology are based upon the attempts of various theorists to explain a phenomenon rare for its time and almost totally unheard of in modern times. Character disturbance — not neurosis — is the pressing psychological reality of our day and simply can’t be understood or dealt with using traditional paradigms.

Almost all the principles of traditional psychology are based upon the attempts of various theorists to explain a phenomenon rare for its time and almost totally unheard of in modern times. That’s right. You see, in Sigmund Freud’s day, some individuals actually suffered from such strange maladies as “hysterical” paralysis and “hysterical” blindness. Such conditions were never common and were the outgrowth of the brutally socially repressive Victorian era. If there were a motto describing the “zeitgeist” (i.e. social or cultural milieu) of that time it would be: “Don’t even think about it.”

What Freud discovered was that strange illnesses that appeared physical were actually psychological and could occur when an individual experienced an unreasonable and excessive level of guilt or shame for merely being tempted to act on a basic human instinct. Freud treated some of these individuals (most of whom were women) and coined the term “neurosis” essentially to describe the kind of internal struggle he believed existed between a person’s instinctual urges (i.e., id) and their conscience (i.e., superego), the excessive anxiety or nervous tension that often accompanies this internal war, and the unusual psychological symptoms a person can develop when attempting to mitigate (through the use of ego defense mechanisms) the intensity of the emotional pain associated with these inner emotional conflicts. His theories seemed to explain the unusual cases he encountered. But he also came to believe that he discovered broad principles that could explain the psychological makeup and functioning of everyone. Many of the terms Freud and his followers coined have been in common parlance for years and most of the central tenets of his theories still enjoy a fair degree of acceptance despite the fact that several have been proven completely false or significantly flawed.

Not only are some of the central tenets of traditional psychology of questionable validity, but also times have changed dramatically since the days of Sigmund Freud. If there were a motto or saying best describing the “zeitgeist” of our time, it would be much like the once popular commercial used to urge: “Just do it!” As a result, highly pathological levels of neurosis have all but completely disappeared, especially in industrialized free societies. Instead of modern culture being dominated by individuals overly riddled with guilt and shame (“hung-up” as children of the 60s used to say), western society has produced increasing numbers of individuals who aren’t “hung-up” enough about the things they let themselves do. So, today we are facing a near epidemic of what some refer to as “character disturbance.” Neurosis is still with us, but for the most part at functional levels. That is, most people today experience just enough apprehension and internal turmoil when it comes to simply acting on their primal urges that they don’t in fact “just do it.” Instead, they experience just enough guilt or shame that they moderate their impulses and conform their conduct to socially acceptable standards. Their neurosis is functional. It helps make society work.

Dealing with the epidemic of character disturbance wouldn’t be such a big problem if it weren’t for the fact that most folks (both lay persons and mental health professionals) are not only versed primarily in classical theories of human behavior but also hold general beliefs about human nature that emanate from these theories. They then attempt to understand and deal with character disturbance with concepts originally designed to explain and deal with neurosis.

Understanding and dealing effectively with character disturbance is challenging for other reasons as well. For one thing, it’s not politically correct to frame some emotional and behavioral problems as stemming from issues of “character.” So, character pathology is at times framed as something else (e.g., an “addiction,” ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, a “chemical imbalance” the symptoms of which might be somewhat managed with medication, etc.). Sometimes, personality or character disturbance is simply written off as unchangeable or untreatable. Sometimes, even professionals will turn a blind eye to character issues and view everyone — even the most severely character-disturbed individual — as neurotic, at least to some degree, and then attempt to treat their supposed neurosis. But the reality is this: character disturbance is the pressing psychological reality of our age, and it’s an entirely different phenomenon from neurosis, requiring a different and broader understanding of the workings of the human psyche. Furthermore, it simply can’t be dealt with in the same way one might typically deal with neurosis. It can only be addressed effectively by employing tools and techniques that are radically different from those developed to treat neurosis.

Over 13 years ago, I published In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People , which is regarded by many as the definitive book on manipulative characters and introduced the subject of the ever-increasing problem of character disturbance. The book remains a bestseller even after all this time because of grass-roots support, highly positive reviews, and unprecedented word-of-mouth recommendation. I’m presently finishing a new book on character disturbance and also fashioning blog posts that highlight the very distinct differences between neurotic and character-disturbed personalities. In the coming weeks, several posts will address these key differences and help you understand what makes the disturbed character tick.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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