Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Awareness

When I politely but firmly stopped accepting “I don’t know” for an answer from my character-disturbed clients, I was astonished at how easily I began to get more straightforward answers that actually made sense.

Personalities which are mostly neurotic differ from disordered characters with respect to the source of the interpersonal and psychological problems associated with them. The problems and distress which neurotic individuals report to others and to therapists often stem from emotional conflicts that are intense and unresolved, yet for the most part, unconscious. For example, if a woman already knew that the unexplained funk she’d been in lately was related to her suppressed feelings of grief and loss that just happened to be resurfacing near the “anniversary” of her mother’s death, she might not even need to see a therapist to help her sort out why she was suddenly and unexpectedly feeling so blue. If the man with an ulcer already had awareness of his obsessive worry over losing his job, which was in turn fueled by his deep-seated mistrust of authority figures based upon his experience with his abusive father, he might never have needed to knock on the therapist’s door. Neurotics are often in considerable emotional turmoil, but the deeper root of their distress and sometimes even the very nature of the emotions they’re experiencing are often unknown to them.

On the other hand, the problems the disordered character experiences (and causes others), and that sometime come to the attention of therapists, are generally associated with behaviors and habits that might be so engrained that they occur fairly “automatically,” but that doesn’t mean the disturbed character isn’t fully conscious of them. He knows exactly what he’s done, is fully aware of why he did it, and also knows full well not only what some of the consequences of this behavior have been in the past, but what they’re likely to be in the future. Nonetheless, habits are habits, and in the case of the disordered character, many of these habits have been unwittingly reinforced by others.

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Lying is one of the more common and problematic behaviors of the disordered character. Sometimes he lies so “automatically” that he finds himself lying when the truth would do just fine. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know he’s lying. He knows. He just does it so often and so readily that he does it without even thinking about it.

In my classical training as a therapist, I was taught never to ask a client “why” they did something because it would “throw them on the defensive” and they would be “afraid” to disclose. So, even though I was very interested in the motivations they had for their problematic behaviors, in my early work I did not ask them directly. A fair amount of the time, when I did broach motivation issues they would reply with something like: “To tell you the truth, doctor, I don’t know,” or “That’s what I’m in therapy to find out.” This would reinforce the notion in me that our therapy task would be to carefully uncover the unconscious underpinnings of their conduct and eventually they would “see” and be able to work through their “issues.”

What a surprise it was to learn that disordered characters are most often very aware, despite the fact that they might use the manipulation and impression-management tactics of “playing dumb,” “feigning innocence,” or “feigning ignorance.” I eventually learned (as have several colleagues and researchers working in this area) that most of the time, “I don’t know” really means something else. Some of the things it can mean are:

  • “I’ve never really thought about it that much.”
  • “I don’t want to think about it.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about it now.”
  • “I know very well why I did it, but I certainly don’t want you to know because that would put you in a position of equal advantage with me — having my number, so to speak — and I won’t be able to manipulate you as easily or manage your impression of my character.”
  • “I hope you’ll buy the notion that I’m basically a person of good character who made an unwitting mistake, oblivious about the harm I caused others — i.e., my intentions were benign and I am willing to increase my awareness with your guidance.”

So, “I don’t know” can mean any of the above and a whole host of other things. But in the case of the disturbed character, it never, ever truly means “I don’t know.” When I politely but firmly stopped accepting “I don’t know” for an answer from my character-disturbed clients, I was astonished at how easily I began to get more straightforward answers that actually made sense. Most importantly, the games of impression management they tried to engage me in diminished dramatically. I also became fairly dramatically aware of how expert disordered characters generally are on the subject of neurosis as well as the mindsets of many mental health professionals. They know how neurotics think, the attitudes they hold, and the naiveties that make them vulnerable to manipulation. They’re also familiar enough with the tenets of traditional psychology to know how to manipulate even a seasoned professional.

I’ll be re-visiting this topic a few times in future posts, especially when talking about another key difference between neurotics and character disorders: What they need and benefit from in therapy.

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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