What is a Character Disorder? Part 2: Questions and Comments

Several intriguing comments and questions have been posted in reply to my earlier articles on character disturbance. In this post, I’d like to address some of these and the issues which readers have raised.

Since introducing the topic of character disturbance in earlier posts (see “Disturbances of Character” for the first), readers have offered several intriguing comments and questions. Because I think a robust discussion on this topic is so important, I’d like to address some of the issues raised in this post.

One comment I was particularly struck by was from Sarah: “Freud’s was the dominant form of thinking and understanding of the day, and today’s dominant form may be something like character disturbance, but the reality described always escapes the categories.”

Ultimate realities are most often fairly incomprehensible and equally hard to describe. In the end, scientific “truths” are really metaphors. They can seem almost poetically correct in a particular era or circumstance and then completely inadequate or archaic in another. A great example is the differing explanation two true geniuses gave for the phenomenon of gravity. Newton explained it as a “force” between two objects, and Einstein explained it as distortion or curvature in the fabric of “space-time.” It seems that while Einstein’s explanation better accounts for almost all of the latest findings of physics, Newton’s equations will do just fine when you’re trying to navigate from the earth to the moon. Every metaphor has its strengths and weaknesses. Problems arise when we get so married to our metaphors that we don’t accept their limitations to adequately explain or deal with certain phenomena. Such is the case with Freudian metaphors and individuals best described as having significant disturbances of character.

Sarah also rightfully cautions that whatever metaphors and labels we employ, we should be careful not to merely “demonize” people. I do think that some could be tempted to view character disturbance as more an indictment of a person as opposed to a more accurate description of their affliction. But my intention in the series of articles I’m doing is not to cast a negative light, but rather an illuminating light on a very real and pressing psychological reality primarily affecting the advanced, industrialized, free world. Even Freud’s theories were prone to cruel demonizing, though they were not seen as doing so at the time. “Cold,” detached and indifferent mothers were soundly blamed for creating autistic babies. Mothers who gave conflicting messages to their children were blamed for fostering schizophrenia. Even young girls who were probably molestation victims were blamed for making up some of their memories out of their unconscious “lust” for their fathers. I could go on. It’s only because most of the most demonizing and abominable tenets of Freudian theory have been soundly rejected and abandoned (though most of its tenets are still accepted) that it appears a much more a benign and humanistic paradigm than the paradigms that have emerged in recent years to address the phenomenon of character disturbance.

Evan interestingly commented: “Manipulation and so forth are usually our best efforts to survive, I think.”

I make it a major point in all my workshops and writings that even though traditional psychology tends to view most of us as fearful runners, human beings are mostly fighters, spending infinitely more time and energy in their daily lives fighting for the things they want or think they need. Fighting is a fundamental instinctual instrument of survival. And fighting underhandedly and stealthily, which is what manipulation is all about, is just one of the ways we learn early on to advance our interests. As I note in my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, the problem is not so much that we fight in so many different ways, but that if we’re to function in non-abusive ways and to maintain a healthy social order, how we fight really matters. In the end, fair, principled, constructive, and respectful assertion is more adaptive than manipulation.

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Gabriella asked if the categorization of character disorders doesn’t in fact parallel the DSM categorization of the “Cluster B” personality disorders. There is some very real overlap there, but there are some key differences also. Ultimately, the neurosis vs. character disorder distinction is a continuum that represents a dimension of personality. And some personality types (including some Cluster B personalities) tend to lie further toward the character disordered end of the spectrum. I’ll be addressing this further in future posts.

Based on the comments I’ve already seen, I’m really looking forward to an engaging exchange on the timely issue of character disturbance. My hope is that as the series of posts progresses, the metaphor I’m attempting to advance will not only become clearer, but that it’s relevance to addressing the phenomenon fairly unique to our age will become even more apparent.

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